Using Critical Thinking to Build Resilience Against Misinformation Professor – Prof. John Cook

We welcomed Professor John Cook, Research Assistant Professor at the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, for our first presentation of Lent term. Prof. Cook has built on decades of research into inoculation theory in the field of behavioural psychology, and in his talk, discussed how this may be applied to climate change denial. 

His talk, titled “Using Critical Thinking to Build Resilience Against Misinformation”, delved into his research into inoculation theory, a suggested framework for stopping the spread of misinformation. 

The key feature of inoculation theory is that it exposes people to a “weakened form” of misinformation. A warning is displayed before the misinformation is shown and this is then followed by an explanation of the relevant counter-arguments. The aim of this technique is to train people to recognise the overarching characteristics of science denial when they encounter misinformation in day-to-day life. Professor Cook groups these practices into a set of five main characteristics:

  1. Fake experts: The practice of presenting an unqualified person or institution as a source of credible, expert information.
  2. Logical fallacies: When the assumptions of an argument do not lead to the conclusion.
  3. Impossible expectations: The act of demanding unrealistic standards of certainty before acting on science, when science can never give absolute certainty on any finding. 
  4. Cherry picking: When data are carefully selected to appear to confirm one position while ignoring other data that contradict that position.
  5. Conspiracy theories: When it is assumed that that there is a scheme planned by those with nefarious intent, without sufficient evidence to support this.

One of the highlights of this talk was the discussion of parallel argumentation – a method used effectively to demonstrate the ways in which misinformation is logically untrue. This process involves transplanting the flawed logic used by a piece of misinformation to another scenario, showing the absurdity of the logic. An example can be seen in Professor Cook’s comic strip below.

CrankyUncle comic depicting parallel augmentation.

Prof. Cook goes on to discuss the challenges faced combating misinformation and suggests psychological and behavioural reasons for the spread of misinformation in today’s society. 

The “Cranky Uncle” app, developed by Prof. Cook, presents a possible solution to these problems. It hosts a game that teaches players about misinformation and encourages competition, to be the best at spotting it. Prof. Cook believes this app has the potential to break into echo chambers and teach critical thinking skills to children, if it were implemented in a school setting. 

CUSAP is grateful to Professor Cook for joining us to share his fascinating research and innovative solutions to the global problem of misinformation. The practical application of inoculation theory demonstrates a way in which the spread of misinformation and pseudoscience can be countered and suggests we all have a role to play in inoculating ourselves and others.

Eilidh Hughes | Climate Change Awareness Officer, Students Against Pseudoscience