John Cook
Skeptical Science’s John Cook of Queensland.

Australian and native Queenslander John Cook has a day job. And it’s not in the climate science field.

You’d never know it based on what the 38-year-old Cook has accomplished while moonlighting. In fact, what he’s accomplished just since launching his popular Skeptical Science website about three years ago.

Translated into 18 languages and with monthly readership now reaching 400,000, much of it from across U.S., Cook’s Skeptical Science site recently has adopted a “Basic” format to accompany the “Intermediate” and “Advanced” explanations of established climate evidence, often in the form of debunking climate myths spread by climate science doubters or “skeptics.”

With an undergraduate education in physics from the University of Queensland and a post-graduate honors year studying solar physics, Cook says his interest in climate science was sparked when he was given a copy of a speech by Oklahoma Republican Senator James Inhofe, most known to climate professionals for having attached the “greatest hoax known to man” tag to anthropogenic climate change.

It was 2007, and Cook was working from his home in web programming and database programming, something he still does to earn a living, generally working with small local Australian businesses — local doctors, beauty salons, cartoonists, and promotional product companies.

Motivated by Inhofe and ‘Big Earth’ Family Talk

“Researching the various skeptic arguments presented by Senator Inhofe revealed many fundamental scientific flaws,” Cook, database guru, said in a recent Skype interview with The Yale Forum. He says he began cataloging the full range of skeptics’ arguments, comparing them with what peer-reviewed science articles said about each one.

“I could see there was a real need for a resource,” Cook said. “A big motivation was to create a resource with peer-review at its foundation.” He points to some existing sites known for debunking skeptics’ arguments, but says they often used other blogs, rather than peer-reviewed studies, to make their points.

John Cook
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iPhone app … drill down for related questions and answers.

“When I argued on forums and blogs, I always sought to cite original peer-review, so I was essentially creating the resource for myself initially,” he said. “So in a sense, Skeptical Science is just a database of peer-reviewed science, a culmination of my science training and physics degree and my day job.”

… ‘My Dad Runs from the Room …’

From 20 posts in 2007 and another 27 in 2008, Cook grew his Skeptical Science site to 60 postings in 2009 … and to more than 300 so far in 2010. With his increasing number of posts came an increase in the number of comments on those posts. There also came an interesting and fun-filled innovation: an App to be downloaded free to one’s iPhone or iTouch or suitable Droid equipment: Enough to baffle, if not outright convert, the most die-hard skeptic at any hotsy-totsy wonkish cocktail reception.

Along with crediting Oklahoma Senator Inhofe with sparking his curiosity about climate change, Cook harkens back to a 2007 exchange “big Earth” discussion he held with his father in law, a skeptic certain that humans don’t have it within their capacity to cause global warming. He laughs that discussions on the subject are pretty much off-limits now also with his own father, another skeptic, so family get-togethers more or less avoid the subject altogether. “My Dad runs from the room” if the subject comes up, he said.

Climate Politics in Australia ‘Less Polarized’ than in U.S.

Asked if his postings debunking skeptics’ viewpoints earn him a lot of blog and  e-mail backlash, Cook is matter-of-fact: “Yes, I do get some abusive e-mails. But it doesn’t seem as virulent as some of the other bloggers get. I’ve found that in just the past few months, it’s gotten a lot more intense, not just e-mails but other skeptic blogs trying to slander me or criticize my website. Comments coming in to the site can be pretty intense too.”

He said that with Americans making up more than 40 percent of his total site visitors, his traffic comes also primarily from his home country Australia and from England and Western Europe. Asked if the blog and e-mail backlash varies from country to country, he said that most comes from the U.S. and that while Australian critics of his posts are “up there … Australian politics isn’t as polarized as U.S. politics, it seems.”

More than 20 Percent of Skeptical Science site visitors come from U.S.

“The kind of people who visit my site regularly are not the same people who look at the skeptic sites,” Cook said. As for skeptic sites that he sees as his competition, “the closest thing to mine in Australia” is, which he said gets about the same level of monthly traffic as his own site. He identified Anthony Watts’ WUWT site as a counterpart American skeptics blog, “though he gets an order of magnitude more traffic than my site gets.”

Pointing to climate change sites such as Tim Lambert’s Deltoid, Tamino’s Open Mind, and Michael Tobis’s Only In It For The Gold, Cook said that “all the climate bloggers, we all keep in pretty close touch. There’s a whole bunch of them.”

Volunteers Contributing from ‘All Over the Place’

With an increasing number of volunteers contributing copy to his site, Cook says he recently has found himself more in an editorial management function rather than as strictly as a researcher and writer.

“It’s all over the place, mostly coming from America, England, Canada, and Australia,” he said when asked the countries of his most frequent contributors. “There are a dozen or so who are writing actual rebuttals, but in our forum if someone writes a rebuttal, the rest of us, perhaps 60 or so, will critique and nit-pick it.”

A labor of love — and one to which Cook contributes a great deal of his non-work time and a chunk of what used to be his full-time work hours — Skeptical Science has no independent source of financial support, Cook said. “It isn’t, basically, funded, except for a pittance via paypal. My wife and I are self-employed, and this is all done in my spare time, while I’m working at home and in whatever time I can spare on climate.” He acknowledges some personal “financial cost” in maintaining and building the site.

What about the impact of the site? Are there any signs that it is enriching the climate change dialog in Australia or elsewhere? Or that it’s moderating the heated dialog on the scientific issues? (They’re questions that grant recipients, including this one, The Yale Forum, constantly struggle with in trying to answer definitively.)

Growth chart showing Skeptical Science monthly visitors

“That’s really hard to measure,” Cook replied, in perhaps the least surprising of his responses to a series of interview questions. “I’ve been thinking about that question. I’ve actually been contemplating trying to quantitatively measure whether the site does have an impact … a periodic survey on the site, polling peoples’ opinions on questions, tracking any changes over time.

“Diehard skeptics,” he said, “really seldom change their positions, so the whole point of my site is really to target the large majority of undecided people …. But it’s hard to really put a number on it.”

Site Seeks More Contact with News Media

Asked what he considers his site’s most significant shortcoming, Cook replied, “There’s not much of an organized effort to target news media. For a long time, I’ve seen the value of the news media. And that’s probably one of the failings of my site, that I haven’t built much of a relationship with the mainstream media.”

Cook said he approaches the site “more from the social media perspective, structuring it to do well in search engines, be keyword-rich, and use addresses for web pages that make it keywordy in the titles, all the SEO [search engine optimization] techniques that I use in my day job.”

Asked the most important mistake he’s made with his site, Cook points to a time when he was interviewed by then-New York Times reporter Andy Revkin for an article about Skeptical Science. Asked by Revkin for a photograph to go with the story, “I had my wife take a picture of me with my iPhone, and I sent that in. All the comments on the blogs were about what an awful picture it was, rather than about the science that I talked about. A climate blogger sent me a long e-mail with an explanation of the physics of why you should never use a photo of yourself with your phone. Even [recently], I saw on WUWT someone linking to that photograph in order to discredit me.”

He acknowledges some other snafus too. “When you start learning about climate, you have sort of this simple way of looking at it,” he said. “And when you learn more, you get a more nuanced understanding of it. A lot of my earlier stuff was, I guess, a bit simplistic, and a lot of my rebuttals lacked that richer understanding. Going back and looking at them now, I will think, ah yes, that needs something of a tweak. So now I’m going back to tweak some of the earlier answers and refine them.”

Cook said that the WUWT site, in what he sees as an effort to discredit his own site, recently pointed to an earlier posting no longer online at Skeptical Science but still available through a separate site. “When I read it, I could see that it was badly worded and open to misinterpretation,” he says. “Now when I write, I try to write with a lot more clarity, understanding how my words could be taken out of context. Google ‘John Cook embarrassing himself,’” he said.

So is he moving toward making Skeptical Science his full-time job, since it already demands so much of his waking hours? “I don’t know. It’s hard to see it,” he replies. “We’ve got our own business, and it’s not like we could just drop that. I’m trying to build a community of participants, and now it’s more me trying to maintain this community, and writing content as well.”

“I’m kind of making it up as we go, in a way, with the social media. But that’s kind of the way it works.”

As for integrating the “basic,” “intermediate,” and “advanced” rebuttals to skeptics’ claims, Cook says that too has turned out to be a real time-hog. He credits NASA climatologist and blogger Gavin Schmidt for coming up with the idea, which he is now implementing.

“I’ve got two big bags under my eyes now,” he allows. “I call one Gavin and the other Schmidt.”

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Bud Ward

Bud Ward was editor of Yale Climate Connections from 2007-2022. He started his environmental journalism career in 1974. He later served as assistant director of the U.S. Congress's National Commission...