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Mason researcher developing game to arm users against climate change misinformation

December 3, 2019   /   by John Hollis

A George Mason University scientist is developing a smartphone game that will teach users to defend themselves from misinformation about climate change.

John Cook, an expert on misinformation, has launched a crowdfunding campaign to enable development of the game “Cranky Uncle” for iPhone and Android phones.

Cook, a research professor at Mason’s Center for Climate Change Communication within the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, has spent over a decade studying different ways to counter misinformation. He is now combining his research into inoculation, critical thinking, cartoon humor and gamification into a smartphone game.

“Misinformation does great damage to society,” Cook said. “An essential solution is making the public more resilient against fake news. But how? Gamification is a powerful approach that can potentially reach many millions of people.”

In the game, players are mentored by a cartoon Cranky Uncle who is dismissive of climate science. As they learn to recognize the flaws in Cranky Uncle’s arguments, they gain points. This is based on a behavioral technique called active inoculation. 

“Before becoming a scientist, I drew cartoons for a living,” said Cook. “So, imagine my delighted surprise when after a decade of research, I discovered that cartoons were a powerful tool in countering misinformation.”

George Mason University scientist John Cook is developing a smartphone game that will teach users to defend themselves from misinformation about climate change.

Cook has tested a prototype of the game in various college classes.

“My students appreciated the combination of humor and real-world examples, while I appreciated how engaged they were in learning how to critically think,” said Professor Melanie Trecek-King at Massasoit Community College in Brockton, Massachusetts. “Learning how not to be fooled is empowering.”

Cook is the founder of the Skeptical Science website,and lead author of a crowd-funded study finding a 97 percent scientific consensus on climate change. He has spent the last decade researching how to counter climate science denial. During his research, Cook has found that debunking climate change misinformation by explaining the techniques of denial is the key to making the public resilient against misinformation. His research has explored critical thinking and cartoon debunkings. He is now testing how smartphone games can increase critical thinking in classrooms.

More information about the game is available at crankyuncle.com and the crowdfunding page is https://advancement.gmu.edu/crowdfunding-crankyuncle. Cook can be reached at jcook20@gmu.edu or at 703-993-5126. Follow him on Twitter at @johnfocook.