Gaming Climate Denial

December 5, 2019

John Cook in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:

How can the average person on the street—who is not a climate scientist, and more than likely has never met a climate scientist—readily discern the facts of science from the seemingly reasonable arguments of nonfactual climate denialism? Amid the constant bombardment of Tweets, Facebook ads, and sophisticated misinformation campaigns from armies of paid trolls, how can the public tell what is real scientific information from clever attempts to mislead?

Some collaborators and I have developed a smartphone application that uses the latest findings in a branch of psychological research called inoculation theory to offer a possible solution to climate misinformation.

The underlying premise behind the game is straightforward, even if the execution is more complicated: Just as being exposed to a weak form of a disease builds immunity against the real disease, being exposed to a weak form of misinformation can build resistance, so people are less influenced by actual misinformation.

In the case of the Cranky Uncle game, the climate change misinformation is delivered in a weakened form by explaining the fallacies that climate change deniers regularly use to distort the facts. Once people understand the techniques used to mislead them, they are less vulnerable to being misled.

Think about it: If you’re going to spot someone cheating at cards, it helps if you first learn some of the common strategies of cheaters—in other words, if you learn how to cheat.

To help do this, a Cranky Uncle cartoon character acts as a mentor. (Think of the Paul Newman character in the movie The Color of Money—the jaded old player explaining the secrets of the art of pool hustling and manipulation to a young Tom Cruise.)

The Cranky Uncle character explains in narrative form some of the tricks used to dismiss climate science. He goes over 16 of the most common techniques of science denial, such as the use of fake experts, logical fallacies, impossible expectations, and cherry-picking of data—to name just a handful.

The overall idea here is to engage students, using narrative, character, humor, and interactive gameplay to explain the techniques of denial and sophistry—the use of reasoning or argument that sounds correct at first glance but is actually false—and consequently build resilience against misinformation. The game draws upon a decade of my research into the psychology of misinformation, including experiments into inoculation and the developing of critical thinking that deconstructs climate misinformation.

By doing so, the game sidesteps one of the formidable stumbling blocks of human psychology: Our brains are hardwired to rely on instinctive, quick thinking rather than slow, reasoned thinking. Resilience against misinformation involves critical thinking, which requires cognitive effort.

Because Cranky Uncle gets players to practice their critical thinking skills and learn climate literacy in the form of an interactive game, it is more likely to engage and educate its player/students. And being a game, it can be readily distributed on a national scale—a key component to any effort at wide distribution.

Using games as teaching tools offers other benefits as well, such as interactive exercises, points systems, leveling up, and player-to-player contests that lend themselves to repetitive practice. The regular task of identifying denial techniques may hold the key to transforming an effortful, slow-thinking task to a more instinctive, automatic activity. Games possess the potential to turn critical thinking into muscle memory.

In addition, the Cranky Uncle game uses a critical thinking technique known as parallel argumentation. This involves taking the flawed logic in misinformation and transplanting it into an absurd situation to make the fallacy more obvious. (See illustration below.) It turns out that cartoons are an excellent delivery mechanism for parallel arguments.

The next stage in this project is developing a native app on iPhone and Android. To achieve this, I’ve launched a crowdfunding campaign this week to fund development of the game, which will be distributed for free on a nonprofit basis. The synthesis of art, science, and technology in the Cranky Uncle game lends itself to the crowdfunding approach. For example, one reward we’re offering for the first 97 “Cameo” donors is getting drawn as a cartoon character in the actual game. Why only 97 cameos? I have to draw each and every person!

One final note as we launch our crowdfunding campaign: Misinformation spread via social media is a plague infecting the entire community. So it is appropriate that community-based solutions—such as social games—be used to counter and repair the damage by inoculating readers.

11 Responses to “Gaming Climate Denial”

  1. Gingerbaker Says:

    Twenty years of organized climate denial by fossil fuels-associated propagandists won’t be addressed with a cutesy game. It will only be addressed when those responsible are either thrown in jail or pulled out of their cars and torn limb from limb.

    This is not an issue of freedom of expression. The issue here is the deliberate subversion of democracy with a calculated propaganda program that is inexorably responsible for the slow-motion murder of millions, if not billions, of people.

    These people are murdering your family. And the correct response is not frustration, it is rage and self-defense.

    • grindupbaker Says:

      It’ll only be addressed when there’s a very (I mean very) large premature death rate among the persons who use most of the products & services that include non-biological carbon oxidization as a significant input. Tens of millions of those / year should do the job.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      Not to worry—The Onion has it under control!

      NEW YORK—In a desperate, perhaps final attempt to prevent the earth’s temperatures from rising to catastrophic levels, a last-ditch climate change report issued Tuesday by the U.N. includes nothing more than the whereabouts of top oil executives and directions to secret weapons caches. “For decades, we have failed in our efforts to spur action by describing in rigorous scientific detail the ways in which global warming will cause widespread misery for billions of innocent people, and so this time we have taken a different approach,” read the report, a 500-page directory that simply lists the names and addresses of key players in the fossil fuel industry, along with the precise coordinates of several bunkers containing extensive stockpiles of firearms without serial numbers. “We have provided the security codes necessary to bypass the gates of each oil executive’s mansion so that their homes may be entered at night and they may be murdered in their sleep. An appendix is included with instructions on how to bash in a skull with a hammer if the bullets run out. It may not seem like a lot on its own, but if everyone comes together and does their part, we can make a tremendous difference.” At press time, sources confirmed no one had bothered to read the report.

    • jimbills Says:

      There was an interesting thing I read this morning:

      “I don’t want to do it anymore,” [Alex Jones] said, “and I got all these people working for me, and you know, then I feel guilty. I don’t want to do it. You think I want to keep doing this? I haven’t wanted to do this for five years, man.”

      The lies these guys tell traps them, and they can’t get out. It’s like when there are little stories about how several GOPers are actually tired of the denial, but they can’t stop. They’ve convinced their voters it’s fake, so now to be re-elected they have to keep same the same lies.

    • redskylite Says:

      See the murdering bastards never know when to stop, free speech is greatly abused in this century.

      Heartland Institute Sponsoring Climate Rebuttal At COP 25:

      Tuesday December 3, you will be able to listen to the cabal that Charles bought make jackasses of themselves in front of the camera.

      https://cleantechnica.com/2019/12/02/heartland-institute-sponsoring-climate-rebuttal-at-cop-25-tuesday/

  2. jimbills Says:

    The main problem with this is that people go in the direction they and their surrounding social groups want them to go. Those leaning towards denial for whatever reason (religion, social and family group beliefs, politics, etc.) aren’t likely to download this app in the first place.

    The people likely to download it are the ones also likely to not head towards denial in the first place. I could see it being used by environmentally-conscious parents worried their children might be victims of misinformation, for instance. I suppose it could also help a handful of people from falling down a YouTube conspiracy spiral or something like that.

    Still, it’s an interesting approach. I don’t think it will have a major impact, but every little bit helps.

  3. redskylite Says:

    John Cook has deeply specialized at tackling and helping people see denial for what it is, and this is an interesting addition to his ideas. His denial101 courses are well worth taking and cover the spectrum of encountered techniques/approaches pretty well.

    It does occur to me in this age of so called freedom of speech, that some of the remaining denial organizations, such as Heartland, could bring out a counter game.

    I can just hope for better media coverage of why kids, scientists and concerned citizens are so worried, which will increase the pressure on politicians through the democratic voting process . Media coverage has certainly improved in my country, with the main news outlets running climate change facts nearly daily now.

    One thing much worse than denial is apathy – how can we fight that ?

  4. indy222 Says:

    The writer is a rare person…. someone who drank the kool aid, sullied his soul for years, committed reprehensible acts, and yet somewhere inside, a decent person, recognizing the crow he’d have to eat, recognizing the excremental direction he’d led his life and what it would do momentarily to his pretended self respect – saw past it to a more self-honoring life, and made the jump. That’s rare. I give him credit for that. But in this screwed up “Democracy” where everyone’s vote counts the same, no matter how ignorant, sociopathic, and degraded you’ve made yourself, your vote counts the same as the wisest and most benevolent among us… well, I don’t see things changing. Fascist pigs are rising everywhere, not just in the U.S. Please – prove me wrong. PLEASE.


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