Sunday, February 23, 2020

Book Review: 'Cranky Uncle vs. Climate Change: How to Understand and Respond to Climate Science Deniers' by John Cook

Most people, even a majority of Americans, believe the climate is changing and that Man is responsible. There is a tiny minority (9-12%) of Americans who deny it. Unfortunately, they are far louder than their numbers, and they run the governments and the major news outlet. John Cook has written an absolutely delightful, not to mention gorgeous book on defeating them and their specious arguments. He calls it Cranky Uncle vs Climate Change, and that level of directness permeates the book.

He uses the vehicle of a cranky uncle, a bald, mustachioed grump who has a negative answer for anything.  The kind of guy who makes you hate going to Thanksgiving dinner,  ever again. Every page has a delightfully different layout incorporating text in different places and shapes, cartoons, and callouts, in text and in cartoons. The result is an easy and even fun read, racking up points at every turn. It is bright and cheery, in steep contrast to the subject matter. That alone makes it a worthy entry on the climate shelf.

Cook classifies deniers' "arguments" into five buckets, he calls FLICC:
Fake Experts
Logical Fallacies
Impossible Expectations
Cherry Picking
Conspiracy Theories

He then sets out the facts, describes deniers' arguments against them (he calls them Myths) and shows which component of FLICC they fall into and why. Like any good science treatise, he quotes a coven of scientists from around the world, and creates cartoon caricatures of them so readers begin to recognize them as they pop up repeatedly. This includes Isaac Newton and Galileo, as well as Naomi Oreskes and Michael Mann from this century.

Cook goes overboard with cartoons debunking conspiracy theories, with sarcasm hiding in plain sight. It's a pretty comprehensive frontal attack, including one of my favorites - the 31,000.

Deniers like to cite a "study" that claims 31,000 American scientists are climate deniers. But what they don't say is that of the 31,000, only 0.1% are climate scientists. The rest are science graduates, in any field, including computer science, says Cook, and he knows because he did one of the studies. The 31,000 represent just 0.3% of the total, hardly a swing vote on the issue. That is, the 31,000 compares rather unfavorably with the ten million American science graduates out there since 1971. Imagine if 31,000 science graduates said smoking does not cause lung cancer or that opioids aren't addictive. That would probably work. Then Americans, it seems, would believe it. That's the problem real science has over climate issues and pollution.

One of my own faves is not in the book - average temperature. Every time it snows or there is a cold snap, cranks crow that it proves the average temperature is not rising. Right up to the president on twitter. But it says no such thing, because average doesn't work that way. All you need is a couple of unbearable three-week heat waves of a hundred degrees (F) to boost the annual local average temperature one degree. It doesn't mean it is one degree warmer every day of the year. In Cook's terms, that's both cherry picking and a false dichotomy. Maybe the second edition.....

There's a lot of fraud in climate deniers' arsenal, from Climategate to inverting facts against themselves. Cook has done a terrific job of collecting them all in one place, and patiently debunking them, one by one. At the  end, he lists them all again for easy retrieval and a memory jog of what was in the book. Altogether  a pleasure to read, and one of the few climate books that leaves a positive imprint on the mind.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.