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A team of researchers has put a straight-forward critical thinking process to the test on 42 common climate science denier claims, showing we can help our friends and family sort fact from fake in just six easy steps.
It’s said we live in a post-truth age. Thankfully there are ways we can slow the spread of myths and misinformation that muddy comprehension around pressing issues that threaten society.
While predictions of climate change caused by global warming are about as robust as science gets, the same can’t be said of research that attempts to discredit them.
None of that stops many people from doubting even the most scientifically sound conclusions, often because the implications of climate change conflict with other beliefs and values.
“Misinformation spreads easily, and can have profound consequences for society if left uncorrected,” says lead author John Cook from George Mason University in the US.
“Climate science is particularly problematic because it describes such a complex system.”
Faced with complexity, even the smartest of us turn to a cognitive process referred to as a heuristic; a quick and dirty way of evaluating the likelihood of an outcome based on simple judgments.
In this case, Cook says people tend to substitute judging the complex topic (climate science), with judging something simpler (the character of the people speaking about climate science).
“This can leave them vulnerable to misleading information,” says Cook.
The challenge is how to deal with a complex argument in a way that is as easy as a heuristic, but with the lowest risk of posing some kind of error in reasoning.
Which is just what this six-step process is – a way to highlight the fundamental flaws in logical thinking we’re all prone to falling for.
Cook explains, “The advantage of our approach is that you don’t need to be an expert in argumentation or climate science to put it to use.”
Here’s a summary of the steps to consider;
Step 1: Lay out the claim being made
Clearly present the statement for examination.
“Earth isn’t warming because I wore a jacket in the middle of summer just recently” is an example of a claim we all might recognise.
Step 2: Identify the claim’s premises
Premises are statements that could be true or false. For example, a premise here is, “It was cold enough for a person to wear a jacket in summer.”
Step 3: Work out the nature of the argument
Deductive reasoning is making a specific claim, and then generalising. On the other hand, inductive reasoning is the taking into account a history of observations and making a specific prediction. Each is a slightly different form of argument that might make a difference in how it’s pulled apart.
In this case, the argument is deductive – its premises are combined to come to a broad conclusion.
If the claim was “Earth has warmed before, so we aren’t causing it now”, it would be inductive. There would be a history of observations used to make a prediction.
Step 4: See if the argument is valid
Are there any hidden premises that aren’t explicitly stated? Check those first.
A hidden premise here is “Global warming excludes local instances of cooler summer temperatures.”
Clearly the hidden premise is a problem – nobody has said global warming by definition rules out patches of cooler temperature. For you fans of Latin, it means the argument is a non sequitur: the conclusion doesn’t follow the premises.
Depending on the type of argument, you’ll have to see if the premises all add up and make sense in light of the conclusion.
Step 5: Check for ambiguity
Ok, so let’s say the argument seems pretty solid at face value. Sometimes, the words and phrases used in one part have a subtly different meaning in another.
Think of the premise, “Nothing is better than cold water on a hot day.”
Add the premise, “Warm water is better than nothing on a hot day.”
As stupid as it might sound, the conclusion “warm water is better than cold water on a hot day” is logically valid based on the words alone.
It relies on ambiguity between the phrases “nothing is better” and “better than nothing”, however, which is where it technically falls apart.
Step 6: Fact check the premises
A claim is only as rock-solid as its premises. If in truth I wore a jacket while the temperature was sizzling, then all bets are off. It’s a bad argument. Dust hands and walk away.
“Often, refuting denialist arguments focuses on scientific information – showing that temperatures are in fact rising, or that there is indeed a scientific consensus that human activity is responsible,” says study co-author Peter Ellerton from the University of Queensland Critical Thinking Project.
“We complement this approach by helping find the flaws in misinforming arguments and explain how the reasons they offer don’t support their conclusions.”
The team put the steps through their paces by applying them to 42 common claims made in opposition to climate science, and found logical fallacies in each of them.
Check out the video below to see the process in action.
Of course, even many of us who side with the science can do so for the wrong reasons. So even if you’re on board with current climate change predictions, it’s a good idea to put these steps into practice.
Give it a go.
This research was published in Environmental Research Letters.