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Resources to give facts a fighting chance against misinformation (by Bärbel Winkler, Germany)

A scientific consensus is not a show-of-hands
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At a guess, readers of this blog published by the International Association for Promoting Geoethics (IAPG) will - just like me - find spreading mis- and disinformation a rather unethical activity. But, it unfortunately happens and we all need to take that into account and be prepared for it. None of us is immune - even with the best intentions - to accidentally spreading misinformation. It therefore helps to be aware of at least some tell-tale signs in order to prevent liking or even sharing what later turns out to be misinformation.

In this blog post, I'll introduce some resources to give facts a fighting chance against misinformation. It is an adapted version of a blog post published on Skeptical Science a few years ago.


The Debunking Handbook 2020

The compact Debunking Handbook 2020 is essential reading if you'd like to get a handle on the most important research findings and current expert advice about debunking misinformation. It contains information about why misinformation can do damage, where disinformation comes from, why misinformation can be sticky, how to prevent misinformation from sticking, and why it's important to debunk often and properly.

The handbook is a consensus document that was created by an innovative process that involved a series of predefined steps, all of which were followed and documented and are publicly available. The authors were invited based on their scientific status in the field, and they all agreed on all points made in the handbook. The authors therefore believe that the new Handbook reflects the scientific consensus about how to combat misinformation.

Since its publication in 2020 the Debunking Handbook 2020 has been translated into 19 languages.

The Conspiracy Theory Handbook

Conspiracy theories attempt to explain events as the secretive plots of powerful people. While conspiracy theories are not typically supported by evidence, this doesn’t stop them from blossoming. Conspiracy theories damage society in a number of ways. To help minimize these harmful effects, The Conspiracy Theory Handbook, by Stephan Lewandowsky and John Cook, explains why conspiracy theories are so popular, how to identify the traits of conspiratorial thinking, and what are effective response strategies. As you'll be very much aware, conspiracy theories related to COVID-19 unfortunately abound and are a big risk for societies around the globe.

The Handbook distills the most important research findings and expert advice on dealing with conspiracy theories. It also introduces the abbreviation CONSPIR which serves as a mnemonic to more easily remember these seven traits of conspiratorial thinking:

  • Contradictory

  • Overriding suspicion

  • Nefarious intent

  • Something must be wrong

  • Persecuted Victim

  • Immune to Evidence

  • Re-interpreting Randomness

Since its publication in 2020, the Conspiracy Theory Handbook has been translated into 19 languages.

The Consensus Handbook and an explainer about a scientific consensus

The Consensus Handbook provides a brief history of the scientific consensus on climate change. The authors John Cook, Sander van der Linden, Edward Maibach and Stephan Lewandowsky summarize the research quantifying the level of scientific agreement on human-caused global warming. They examine what the public thinks about the consensus and the misinformation campaigns that have sought to confuse people. They also look at how we should respond to this particular misinformation and how best to communicate the scientific consensus. Lastly, they answer some of the objections to communicating the consensus.

A lot of mis- and disinformation is still being spread about the scientific consensus on human-caused global warming, mostly by abusing the ambiguity of the term "consensus" which means something different if used colloquially as compared to in science. In order to clear up this misunderstand, we published an explainer on Skeptical Science which goes into the details of what a scientific consensus is and isn't:

  • It's important to note that a scientific consensus is not proof for a scientific theory but that it’s the result of converging lines of evidence all pointing to the same conclusion. It is therefore not a part of the scientific method but is actually a consequence of it. When people argue against a scientific consensus, they are usually misunderstanding the term or are deliberately abusing the ambiguity of the term consensus. A scientific consensus is not infallible but nonetheless represents the best knowledge available on a given scientific topic at a given time. In addition, it provides the foundation for new knowledge by generating follow-up questions for scientists to explore.

  • A scientific consensus is not a show-of-hands as it looks like in the cartoon below at first sight! It's more like "Yes, because of the evidence we all agree that humans are causing climate change." The consensus is not evidence of global warming – it evolved over more than 100 years from the evidence.

FLICC - The techniques found in science denial

In 2007, Mark Hoofnagle suggested on his Science Blog Denialism that denialists across a range of topics such as climate change, evolution, & HIV/AIDS all employed the same rhetorical tactics to sow confusion. The five general tactics were conspiracy, selectivity (cherry-picking), fake experts, impossible expectations (also known as moving goalposts), and general fallacies of logic.

Two years later, Pascal Diethelm and Martin McKee published an article in the scientific journal European Journal of Public Health titled Denialism: what is it and how should scientists respond? They further fleshed out Hoofnagle’s five denialist tactics and argued that we should expose to public scrutiny the tactics of denial, identifying them for what they are. John Cook, founder of Skepical Science and cognitive scientist at the University of Melbourne, took this advice to heart and began including the five denialist tactics in his own talks about climate misinformation. As explained in his blog post this eventually led to the abbreviation FLICC representing the 5 main techniques used in science denial: fake experts, logical fallacies, impossible expectations, cherry picking and conspiracy theories. Since then, many techniques have been added and a veritable taxonomy now exists:

The FLICC Poster

As mentioned above, disinformation campaigns use the same techniques and tricks time and again ­– not only on climate change and COVID-19, but on many other science-related issues. Within the five main categories (see above), further subtypes of tricks can be found, more than thirty of which John Cook has now described. Once you have seen through the basic strategies, says Cook, alongside other communication psychologists, you are much less susceptible to further attempts at disinformation – you are basically immunized against their spread. The FLICC poster is the result of a successful collaboration between Skeptical Science and our German language partner site You can download A3-format versions of the poster in several languages via this page or order A2 printouts from them.

The Cranky Uncle App

Cranky Uncle is the creation of scientist and cartoonist John Cook, who uses cartoons, humor, and critical thinking to expose the misleading techniques of science denial and build public resilience against misinformation. To explain why and how some people reject scientific evidence, Cook created the character Cranky Uncle, the family member we all have who thinks he knows better than the world’s scientists.

The free Cranky Uncle smartphone game has been created in collaboration with Goodbeast and has been available since December 2020, when the English version was launched. Since then, the game has been translated into 12 languages already and more are in the works.

This free smartphone game uses cartoons and gameplay to interactively explain the denial techniques used to cast doubt on (climate) science. Responding to misinformation is more important than ever in this post-truth era where science and facts are under constant assault. Research has identified a key solution is making the public more resilient against fake news.

This approach is called ‘active inoculation’ — learn how to spot attempts to mislead by first learning the techniques of denial. In the Cranky Uncle game, players are mentored by a cartoon personification of climate science denial. In this current version of the game, Cranky Uncle explains 21 techniques of science denial, from fake experts to cherry picking and a variety of different logical fallacies. John Cook's paper "Cranky Uncle: a game building resilience against climate misinformation" published in the Austrian periodical Plus Lucis for educators in 2021 provides a detailed introduction to the game. It is available as an adapted blog post on Skeptical Science.

The Teachers' Guide to Cranky Uncle

Published in January 2021, The Teachers' Guide to Cranky Uncle offers background information and classroom activity ideas for educators interested in using the Cranky Uncle game to teach critical thinking in their classes.

The Cranky Uncle game builds resilience against misinformation and strengthens players’ critical thinking. It achieves this through inoculation—explaining the rhetorical techniques used to mislead. The denial techniques in the game are built  on the five techniques of science denial outlined in the FLICC framework.

One of the activities in the Teachers’ Guide is the Please Don’t Fail Me assignment, designed by Melanie Trecek-King from Thinking is Power. Melanie has also written a blog post going into greater detail into this assignment and how students responded.

Other suggested activities include:

  • Introduction to FLICC

  • Walk-through game

  • Roleplaying

  • Have students create misinformation

  • Debunking misinformation

  • ... and more

Skeptical Science

Last but not least and in addition to the resources mentioned above, Skeptical Science is also a valuable resource if you are looking for rebuttals to typical climate myths. We are currently working through our rebuttals in order to update their content with more current data and to also add an easy to understand at-a-glance section. This is explained in our corresponding blog post about the rebuttals update factory.

Bärbel Winkler

Bärbel Winkler lives in Germany and works as an IT systems analyst for a German manufacturing company. In her spare time she helps with the Skeptical Science websites where - among other activities - she coordinates the translation efforts and writes blog posts related to science communication and how to tackle misinformation.


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