Yesterday’s article obviously didn’t make a lick of sense unless you knew who we were embarrassing—which only makes it even more touchingly supererogatory that you still read the whole thing word for word, liked it and Tweeted the link so widely. I really appreciate the loyalty that showed.
To answer your question, I could do worse than to plagiarize (command-P, or ctrl-P if you can’t afford a name-brand computer) the following profile piece from New Scientist.
(Don’t be deterred by the yoof-facing headline; their Know Your Meme column is actually one of the least-crapola sections of NS’s website these days.)
Know Your Meme
What Does the Phrase “John Cook” Mean, Anyway?
Meet John Cook. John likes piña coladas, is not into yoga and has half a brain—a condition that crushed his childhood dream of a career in the real sciences. In the Australia of the 1990s, it was considered a waste of time to formally educate the specially- and lesser-brained. And so it was that, as soon as he turned 25, John was expected to leave university and support his family.
With nothing but a BSc to his name, he then spent years trying his hand at every unskilled job imaginable. Collecting garbage. Human chess piece. Seat-warmer at the ARIA awards. Writing a college-level climate science textbook. Cartilage donor. The rèsumé goes on. If it paid minimum wage and the only job requirement was a pulse, Cook gave it a shot.
Not a bad contribution to society, all in all, for a kid from Queensland who had to re-take his nuchal translucency test five times. Cook’s career might never be storied but it’s certainly been varied, and one struggles to find a single descriptor that does him justice. These days he teaches cardiothoracic surgery at George Mason Med., but his business card is more open-ended: John Cook, Fake Expert, it reads simply.
What about hobbies? A man needs hobbies, so that his wife and kids don’t constantly talk to him—and Cook’s extracurricular routine certainly leaves little time for that. When he isn’t campaigning for the rights of the other five or six people born with hemencephaly, you can find him in his unlisted, secluded home, hard at work on a major anthology of Rabindranath Tagore’s juvenilia. Behind the child-safe, woman-proof locked doors of his study, Cook seems fully alive, beamishly showing off his collection of first editions, signed poems and yellowed manuscripts. Most of it’s set in Assamese—or is that Devanagari? I’m always forgetting the difference, and I’m too embarrassed to ask. (Intellects at Cook’s level aren’t known for suffering fools gladly.)
“Check this out! How mental is this alphabet,” he giggles, using a gloved finger to trace out (in the wrong direction) the first line of a quatrain. It’s in the original Bengali, naturally.
“It looks like a sort of ten-wheelchair pileup of handicapped-parking symbols, right? It’s not just me, is it?”
What the bizarre glyphs mean we may never know, explains Cook, who suspects the very question might be falsely-premised. The real issue, the real problem for science, is: why was a large swathe of the Indian subcontinent so obsessed with disabled bathrooms?
My eye is drawn, then repulsed, then drawn again by a Polaroid nailed to the wall above the mantelpiece.
“Oh, this takes me back. As a joke, we used to call Mum the Beauty [Product] Queen,” Cook recalls, “because of her obsession with anti-aging skin care, dermabrasion, botulinum, you name it.”
At 82, Oreskes’ mind has begun to go, her son confides.
“But show her this [photograph] and she not only recognizes herself, she can describe the day [it was taken] like it was yesterday. We’d gone to town for vegetables, you see, and the villagers seemed to think we were siblings of some kind! The misconception miffed me a bit, but it chuffed Mum no end.
“Frankly, I don’t see it myself. Am I missing something? Do we look coeval to you?”
Cook even had a career online once, he reminds me. In 2007 he founded the world’s first blog devoted to climate skeptics and the fact that they say the damnedest things. It’s hard to imagine now, but for years Skeptical Science dot com was a relevant, award-winning resource, to which even a scientist of the stature of Phil Jones might refer a colleague if she asked him a question he couldn’t rebutt.
But as climate skeptics—deniers, to use the scientific term—became an increasingly discredited and endangered species, demand for the latest rebuttals, news and commentary on them naturally faded. You might say SkS was literally a victim of its own success if you were prone to cliché.
These days a mere handful of visitors (“rather sad, obsessive types,” says Cook) still loiter at the site, which he only updates sporadically—whether out of habit or a feeling of pity for the hangers-on (“they don’t seem to have much else going on in their lives”), he’s not sure.
“All I know is that normal, happy people don’t seem to care about climate skeptics any more. Not enough to read a blog criticizing them, at any rate. And ironically, it’s all thanks to said blog.”
Has he ever wondered what he’d say if he met one?
“Funny story: that actually happened! This was back in Australia, where campus security is practically non-existent. So, one day, a member of the public finds his way onto the grounds of the University of WA. And knowing my luck, who should get into the same elevator, or ‘lift,’ as this individual?
“That’s right: me. And the other people who were going up. So I’m eavesdropping on this individual, and it emerges that he’s, like, the one individual on the continent who still hasn’t accepted what the scientists believe.
“I must have been pretty naive back then, because I butted in and tried to reason with this guy. After all, I was armed with every tool in the climate handbook: argumentum ad populum, appeal to consensus, the argument from majority, even intimidation by numbers.
“And what did he have? A bunch of fallacies.
“Of course, I know now—and I often publish about this with Steve Lewandowsky—that there’s a very good reason why my prize-winning science-communication skills had zero impact that day in the elevator. No, I’m not an inept debater who couldn’t argue his way out of a wet paper bag,” he says, laughing.
“Nothing like that. It’s just that when someone is in denial, engagement is not only futile, it’s counterproductive.
“Everyone within earshot could tell that we were going backwards, fast. We kept throwing facts and figures at each other, but the guy wasn’t becoming less skeptical [about the science]; he was just making me more skeptical.
“It was almost as if the more evidence I heard, the more ammunition I had to reject the science!”
What did you do?
“What could I do? I pretended I had to flounce. You know: teared up a bit, got flustered, made increasingly shrill and non-responsive assertions, the works. Next time the doors opened I seized my chance, firing off some sophomoric insults to cover my rear as I escaped.
“I couldn’t even tell you which floor I was on! For the rest of the day I stuck to the stairs—just in case he was still in there. The rest of the week, actually.”
I can’t help remarking: it sounds as if Cook acted like a complete intellectual pussy.
“Uhuh, well put—that’s essentially what I was going for. People seemed to buy it, too!” ■