“I’m a scientist first, but I was always doodling in the margins,” says John Cook when asked about Cranky Uncle, his comic series that pokes serious fun at proponents of climate change misinformation. With a B.S. in physics and a Ph.D. in philosophy, John is uniquely suited to help people think critically about climate issues. But it was arguments with his father-in-law that stirred his resolve to counter climate change misinformation.
“Even as a scientist working in the ivory tower, I’ve become more conscious that we need communication practitioners: people in the trenches, doing practical public engagement work.”
As a university professor, textbook author, and creator of the Cranky Uncle cartoon strip, John Cook always sensed his research into climate change denial could have real world consequences. The idea, he says, is to “inoculate the public against climate change misinformation. If you expose people to a weakened form of misinformation, they can grow immune to this ‘misinformation virus.’” And a spoonful of humor makes that medicine go down a whole lot easier. John acknowledges that airing the “absurd” view in his cartoons can be a bit thorny, “but if you want to spot someone cheating at cards, you have to learn to cheat at cards.”
“John’s misinformation inoculation/card shark analogy caught my attention as I know a little something about card counting," says Goodbeast’s Kurt Roberts. (Don’t worry, Kurt’s just into magic: “Pick a card, any card…”)
But actually reaching that mainstream audience in an engaging and even lighthearted way wasn’t always easy. And climate change denial — despite near-universal research consensus that humans are the primary cause of our warming planet — was on an irrefutable rise.
Turning his Cranky Uncle cartoons into a book was a rejuvenating first step. With the help of Goodbeast, a targeted Facebook campaign raised levels of engagement across the board by using John’s cartoons to debunk the theory that cold weather disproves global warming. The publication of Cranky Uncle vs. Climate Change in February of 2020 further marked John’s entrance into the public conversation around climate change.
John, however, wanted to step out of the traditional confines of a book and broaden the reach of his work. If he could manage to obtain enough funding, he had a hunch his efforts at combating environmental misinformation would be given an exponential boost by going digital.
And that’s exactly what materialized. An intrepid, multi-level crowdsourcing campaign led by Goodbeast blew past fundraising goals and opened the door for not only a Cranky Uncle app in English but a multilingual edition as well. John and Goodbeasts’s Kurt Roberts quickly got to work designing a gamified version of the increasingly popular cartoon.
The hard part, of course, was figuring out how to develop an accessible, fun game that could catch on like wildfire — or, more like it, help put an end to them.
Drawing on their past work together, John and Kurt imbued the app from day one with their own belief in the project and the power of technology to fuel it. Utilizing open source tools like Vue.js and Capacitor backed by Amazon's AWS Cloud Computing platform, we built a flexible application deployed to both iOS and Android from one content base.
The final product, released in 2020, took what began as little doodles in the margins of John’s academic notebooks and turned them into a full-scale immersive experience. It was different than anything John imagined and the ultimate bridge between the research world and the world of everyday people.
By actively navigating the app and playing the Cranky Uncle game, users learned to spot the faulty tenants of climate change denial without making them feel like they were in the classroom. Suddenly, absurd but persistent arguments against global warming — arguments that John has dedicated his entire academic career studying — came to life almost as quickly as John’s cartoons took them to task.
In the end, the Cranky Uncle app empowered John to make good on the promise of his life’s work: cutting through the age of conspiracy theories and false narratives to reorient the way people understand the world around them. All while having a good laugh.