John Cook, a climate communication researcher and finalist for the 2022 AAAS Early Career Award for Public Engagement with Science, describes how a chance meeting with game developers led to their collaboration on a misinformation game.
For the last decade and a half, I’ve been researching how to counter misinformation about climate change. My research led me to inoculation theory, the idea of building resilience against misinformation by exposing people to a weakened form of misinformation. In other words, you can help people spot misinformation by making them aware of the rhetorical techniques used to mislead. I’ve also conducted research into using humor and cartoons to expose misinformation techniques in a more engaging (and potentially viral) way, drawing on my pre-science career as a cartoonist.
Along the way, I’ve been putting my research findings into practice, developing and deploying interventions that help inoculate the public against climate misinformation. But explaining the many techniques used to mislead is a communication challenge because, well, there are just so many of them! How to meet this challenge?
I’m a big believer in the concept of science communication as a team sport. It’s crucial that scientists partner with communicators who can more effectively reach audiences they otherwise aren’t able to reach. I’ve seen this principle applied effectively with health professionals communicating the health risks of climate change, and TV weathercasters in the US and Australia helping the public join the dots between climate change and extreme weather.
Likewise, at a chance meeting at a misinformation conference, I met a game developer from the creative agency Goodbeast. This led to a collaboration where we crowdfunded then developed a critical thinking smartphone game Cranky Uncle. The game synthesized my psychological and critical thinking research with GoodBeast’s game development skills. The game also used cartoons to make the game more visual, humorous, and engaging for players.
Games turn out to be the perfect tool for building resilience against misinformation. A fundamental psychological challenge in teaching critical thinking is that our brains are hard-wired for fast, instinctive reactions rather than slow, critical thinking tasks like assessing the quality of arguments. But if we practise critical thinking over and over again, difficult tasks become quicker and easier. Games incentivize players to practise tasks repeatedly, by collecting points and leveling up. The Cranky Uncle game repeatedly shows players examples of misinformation, challenging them to identify the misleading technique in each example.
When we launched the game in December 2020, the early adopters were already reading my work or following me on social media. In other words, these were people who were highly engaged with the issue of climate change and misinformation. We were essentially preaching to the choir—not the people who most needed the game (of course, this is still an important audience because teaching the choir to sing plays an important part in reaching the rest of the population).
Nevertheless, I found the game really hit its stride when we started targeting educators. In January 2021, I published the Teachers’ Guide to Cranky Uncle and Goodbeast updated the game so educators could sign up for a group code for their students. This was a natural step—in the initial stages of game design, we tested a simple prototype of the game in classes across the country, obtaining valuable student feedback (my favorite comment was “it teaches you to outsmart boomers”). We found classrooms all across the U.S. quickly signing up to use the game. Teachers were crying out for engaging educational resources that taught critical thinking.
I was especially surprised at the wide range of classes adopting the game. Originally I envisaged the game being used by college students but was surprised to find high schools (and even middle schools) also using the game. I also saw the game as most relevant to science classes, particularly climate or environmental science. But the game was being used in math, English, history, geography, psychology, philosophy, media studies—basically any subject which contained misinformation (e.g., all subjects).
Addressing complex, ubiquitous societal problems like misinformation requires ambitious, interdisciplinary solutions. Game developers were able to help me develop an engaging tool to inoculate the public against misleading techniques. Then I adapted the tool to better fit the needs of educators looking to teach critical thinking in the classroom. Finding collaborative partners helped create the ideal tool for engaging the public and distributing it to audiences I would otherwise never reach.
The next stage of the game involves expanding to an even wider audience. We’re about to launch a multilingual version of the game and with a network of volunteers, are translating the game into over a dozen languages. We’re also partnering with UNICEF to add new content addressing fallacies in vaccination misinformation, with the goal of expanding into Africa, Asia, and South America and reducing vaccine hesitancy across the globe. It’s ambitious but made possible with the right partners.
John Cook was a finalist for the 2022 AAAS Early Career Award for Public Engagement with Science. He is a research fellow at the Climate Change Communication Research Hub at Monash University. He is also affiliated with the Center for Climate Change Communication as adjunct faculty. In 2007, he founded Skeptical Science, a website which won the 2011 Australian Museum Eureka Prize for the Advancement of Climate Change Knowledge and 2016 Friend of the Planet Award from the National Center for Science Education. John co-authored the college textbooks Climate Change: Examining the Facts with Weber State University professor Daniel Bedford. He was also a coauthor of the textbook Climate Change Science: A Modern Synthesis and the book Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand. In 2013, he published a paper analysing the scientific consensus on climate change that has been highlighted by President Obama and UK Prime Minister David Cameron. In 2015, he developed a Massive Open Online Course at the University of Queensland on climate science denial, that has received over 25,000 enrollments.
John earned his PhD in Cognitive Science at the University of Western Australia in 2016.