Skeptical Science and the Rise of AppTivism

Editor’s note: You can nominate candidates for the PopTech Science and Public Leadership Fellows until April 1, 2010; more information on the nomination page.

This year, as PopTech is putting together its inaugural class of Science and Public Leadership Fellows, we’re spending a lot of time thinking about new ways to create public engagement around the sciences. Like everyone these days, science communicators have to fight to be heard amid a fractured and fractious media landscape. But they also carry another burden – to accurately convey nuanced, complex and occasionally politically charged truths, while working to prevent or debunk mischaracterization and oversimplification of those very same truths. It’s no easy feat, especially in country where more people believe in haunted houses than in global warming.

One strategy is to work with the media ecosystem itself – to embrace and leverage new platforms, rather than see them as part of the problem. That’s just what Australian solar physicist John Cook, of Skeptical Science, has recently done.

Skeptical Science app
Image: Skeptical Science.

Cook exhaustively catalogued more than 90 climate-change criticisms, arguments and complaints, and then linked to what the science actually says on each of these topics. He has now made all of this material available in an extremely user-friendly iphone application (link opens in iTunes store), which is designed for use in conversation with someone on the opposite side of the debate.

Skeptical Science
Image: Skeptical Science.

The app allows you to quickly surf through the most common anti-climate-change arguments and get meticulously researched links to the underlying science. More interestingly, the app allows you to send in “field reports” of anti-global warming arguments appearing in the wild, providing important metadata about which anti-climate-change arguments are spiking in the public discourse.

Skeptical Science
Image: Skeptical Science.

There are hugely important lessons here for anyone interested in social engagement, namely:

1.) embrace the most relevant channels,
2.) make it useful, social and fun and
3.) provide social feedback loops so that the effects of each engagement can be measured in real time, and improved in the future.

As (somewhat hilariously) reported by the Guardian, the arrival of Skeptical Science has sent some activists in the anti-global-warming camp into paroxysms, calling for the creation of a anti-global-warming app to combat it. Whether we will see one or not is an open question, since the rhetorical style of the anti-global-warming activists, much like those of anti-Evolution activists, is to try to pick at the edges of arguments, rather than take them head on – which makes them less amenable to Skeptical Science’s approach. But either way, we certainly are entering an age where political activism of all stripes will be expressed as much in software code as much as in the content of messages.

Welcome to the Age of AppTivism.

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