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Debunk me! “Lean, mean and easy to read …”

November 29th, 2011 · 14 Comments

Human society being what it is, we live in a world filled with myths.

By doing that list, I just broke the cardinal law of debunking myths:  Don’t lead with and (certainly) don’t bold the myth because, as per The Familiarity Backfire Effect, this just reinforces the myth.  When done wrong, “debunking reinforces the myths. … emphasis of debunking should be on the facts not the myth. You goal is to increase people’s familiarity with the facts.”

Just out, written by John Cook and Stephan Lewandowsky, is the Debunking Handbook (or here).  As the authors explain

Although there is a great deal of psychological research on misinformation, there’s no summary of the literature that offers practical guidelines on the most effective ways of reducing the influence of myths. The Debunking Handbook boils the research down into a short, simple summary, intended as a guide for communicators in all areas (not just climate) who encounter misinformation.

Long concerned about the challenges of dealing with people’s false concepts in an effort to help foster more reality-based understanding that will enable better decision-making (at all levels), I have to say that Cook and Lewandowsky have done a great job of clearly and succinctly outlining the challenge(s) and providing actionable paths forward to deal with them.  As Brad Johnson put it, the handbook is

a must-read summary of the scientific literature on how to extract pernicious myths from people’s minds and restore fact-based knowledge. … Although the examples used come primarily from the world of climate science, the tools in the Debunking Handbook are key for debunking other myths about science, economics, and society.

The executive summary:

Debunking myths is problematic. Unless great care is taken, any effort to debunk misinformation can inadvertently reinforce the very myths one seeks to correct. To avoid these “backfire effects”, an effective debunking requires three major elements. First, the refutation must focus on core facts rather than the myth to avoid the misinformation becoming more familiar. Second, any mention of a myth should be preceded by explicit warnings to notify the reader that the upcoming information is false. Finally, the refutation should include an alternative explanation that accounts for important qualities in the original misinformation.

The handbook has six one-page pieces with a seventh page providing the references. Clearly written, with reinforcing graphics, this is a clear and easy read (which helps sets an example for good myth-busting). Here, in brief, are the six points

Debunking the first myth:  Sadly “mud sticks”

Those in the reality-based world often deal with things in the ‘information deficit’ model.  If people only knew the facts and had more information, the problem would be solved. In dealing with myths, we have to engage the thinking and thought processes rather than simply the database of information.

A common misconception about myths is the notion that removing its influence is as simple as packing more information into people’s heads. This approach assumes that public misperceptions are due to a lack of knowledge and that the solution is more information – in science communication, it’s known as the “information deficit model”. But that model is wrong: people don’t process information as simply as a hard drive downloading data.

And, worsening this challenge is that once the mis (or dis) information is there, it is nearly impossible to totally dislodge it from people’s thinking. Worse off, of course, is that debunking the myth efforts, if poorly done, can and will “make matters worse.”

So this handbook has a specific focus – providing practical tips to effectively debunk misinformation and avoid the various backfire effects.

The Familiarity Backfire Effect

Sigh, to debunk the myth requires mentioning it?  Oops, not necessarily.

And, more importantly, if you have to mention the myth, make sure to do so within a context. “Your debunking should begin with the facts”, not emphasize (e.g., no bolding people) the myth, and provide a context (an alternative explanation) of how the myth misleads.

E.g., sandwich the myth with facts and a factual explanation of why it is a myth, subordinating the ‘myth’ itself into a minor role in the conversation.

Overkill Backfire Effect

If one fact is good, 100 must be great? Yet again, a myth.

At some point, we hit overload “because processing many arguments takes more effort than just considering a few.  A simple myth is more cognitively attractive than an over-complicated correction.”

The solution is to keep your content lean, mean and easy to read.

The Worldview Backfire Effect

In essence, this really says ‘give up hope’ for the most doctrinaire since they will struggle (consciously and unconsciously with the Confirmation Bias) to come up with ways information reinforces their position and deride/denigrate anything that doesn’t fit (and fulfill) their weltanschauung.

This was demonstrated when Republicans who believed Saddam Hussein was linked to the 9/11 terrorist attacks were provided with evidence that there was no link between the two, including a direct quote from President George Bush.11 Only 2% of participants changed their mind (although interestingly, 14% denied that they believed the link in the first place). The vast majority clung to the link between Iraq and 9/11, employing a range of arguments to brush aside the evidence. The most common response was attitude bolstering – bringing supporting facts to mind while ignoring any contrary facts. The process of bringing to the fore supporting facts resulted in strengthening people’s erroneous belief.

Since the backfire effect is strongest in those with already fixed views, this means that

outreaches should be directed towards the undecided majority rather than the unswayable minority

More importantly, “messages can be presented in ways the reduce the usual psychological resistance.”  Use self-affirmation to build confidence that enables people to question themselves and frame discussions in ways appropriate to the audience.

Self-affirmation and framing aren’t about manipulating people. They give the facts a fighting chance.

Mind the Gap

An interesting item, which I’d never concerned before the Handbook, is that the debunking effort creates a void (a gap in people’s mental model) and nature abhors a vacuum.  For effective debunking, “your debunking must fill that gap” with an alternative (truthful) explanation.

An FYI from this section, “if your content can be expressed visually, always opt for a graphic in your debunking.”

Anatomy of an effective debunking

Bringing all the different threads together, an effective debunking requires:

  • Core facts—a refutation should emphasize the facts, not the myth.
    • Present only key facts to avoid an Overkill Backfire Effect;
  • Explicit warnings—before any mention of a myth, text or visual cues should warn that the upcoming information is false;
  • Alternative explanation—any gaps left by the debunking need to be filled.
    • This may be achieved by providing an alternative causal explanation for why the myth is wrong and, optionally, why the misinformers promoted the myth in the first place;
  • Graphics – core facts should be displayed graphically if possible.

In short, consider the Debunking Handbook a must read and a must keep reference.

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Tags: research · science

14 responses so far ↓

  • 1 John Egan // Dec 1, 2011 at 8:24 am

    Évidemment – –
    You are not aware of the straw man fallacy.

    I stepped off the AGW bus when its advocates began insisting that the debate was “settled” and that any further discussion was tantamount to genocide. Such a position flies in the face of 500 years of humanist inquiry – in fact, it more closely approaches the position of the inquisition.

    I remain a left critic of the overall AGW platform. Although I see continued addiction to fossil fuels as profoundly harmful to the planet as well as to its human inhabitants, I cannot accept the false certainties of AGW and its policy directivies.

    Although the right can and does base much of its agenda on false premises without serious repurcussions, when the left does so it nearly always backfires. The Koch Bros, Exxon Mobil, etc. are stinkers – but they will always be out there to undermine progressive ideas. That is and will be a fundamental fact of the political process – at least for my lifetime.

    Yes, carbon is a greenhouse gas – but the degree to which it contributes to the current warming is uncertain. A roughly 20% margin of error is rather wide. At the lower end, carbon dioxide’s contribution to warming is limited. Similarly, it is the height of hubris to suggest that we can understand process such as Arctic ice when there is only 30 years of reasonably good data and there may be cyclical process at work that have 100-year or longer cycles.

    A few years ago, a DailyKos blogger used the bushfires in Australia as evidence of permanent climate change – – yet Australia has reentered a wet cycle for the past two years. Not surprisingly, the dire warnings of the AGW movement have negative electoral effects when they fail to materialize. For example – Ehrlich was absolutely correct in positing world population as a profound threat when he published “The Population Bomb” – yet, his dire predictions made the book a laughing stock and set back the efforts to address population issues by a generation or more.

    I do not disagree that the current pattern of energy production and consumption is terribly short-sighted and profoundly damaging – – but I do believe that the current AGW movement is going about it in a manner counter to the humanist tradition and with tactics that will ultimately backfire.

  • 2 “Comfortable History” subset of “Sound Science”? // Jan 23, 2012 at 1:07 pm

    […] It is far, far, more ‘energy-efficient’ in terms of time (and intellectual horsepower and other resources) to run from glib half-truth to well-phrase misrepresentation to outright fabricated lies than to remain faithful to truthful engagement. And, it is far easier to promulgate such untruthful thinking than to chase after the falsehoods, in a perpetual whack-a-mole game, as a white knight debunker. […]

  • 3 Amazon-ian challenge: what is the right thing to do? // Feb 9, 2012 at 9:25 pm

    […] Debunking myths is difficult and resource demanding.  A very useful Debunking guide.  And, an example of a recent whacking moles debunking […]

  • 4 “Responsibility. Patriotic Pride. Accountability.” Pillars for effective climate change political communication. // Sep 6, 2012 at 1:36 pm

    […] This is an excellent report but the “attack” response section seems to run at odds with The Debunking Handbook by providing too much visibility to the “attacks” even while the substance of responses […]

  • 5 @BarackObama tweets on climate: Yeah and sigh … // Oct 11, 2012 at 8:45 am

    […] of climate change in his RNC speech (and, well, lots of places elsewhere before and since). Take a look at the “Debunking Handbook”, which makes clear that starting off with the ‘myth’ to be ‘debunked’ sadly […]

  • 6 Dispelling Electric-Vehicle Myths, #1: About that CO2 Footprint… // Oct 28, 2013 at 8:35 am

    […] In a series of guest posts, Assaf addresses — from the perspective both of an EV owner and an analyst — myths about electric vehicles. This post, as per title, addresses the life-cycle CO2 Footprint of various types of cars … and … the simple truth (in line with Debunking Handbook guidelines): […]

  • 7 Portfolio Theory vs the Myth of Intermittent Wind Power // Feb 24, 2014 at 4:28 am

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  • 8 2014 SkS Weekly Digest #10 » Official Socialist Webzine // Mar 9, 2014 at 5:59 pm

    […] Navigating Climate Science Denialism: Resources for you Greg Laden touts both the SkS website and The Debunking Handbook via the article, Debunk me! “Lean, mean and easy to read …”.. Laden also links […]

  • 9 2014 SkS Weekly Digest #10 | Gaia Gazette // Mar 9, 2014 at 6:31 pm

    […] Navigating Climate Science Denialism: Resources for you Greg Laden touts both the SkS website and The Debunking Handbook via the article, Debunk me! “Lean, mean and easy to read …”.. Laden also links to The […]

  • 10 Reasons to apply a skeptical mindset to claims of disaster due to @EPA regulation … // Jun 2, 2014 at 9:20 am

    […] heading further and in line with the Debunking Handbook, let us start with some basic truths about investing in climate […]

  • 11 Costly Confusion | Sense & Sustainability // Jun 9, 2014 at 8:01 am

    […] hard to undermine public support for EPA action.  Before heading further, and in line with the Debunking Handbook, let us start with an aside covering some basic truths about investing in climate […]

  • 12 Tackling Six Liberal Climate Change Myths // Dec 2, 2014 at 5:22 pm

    […] an aside, my very first reaction on reading the post is that the author (Erik Linberg) should read the Debunking Handbook (as should anyone looking to tackle half-truths and outright deception with counter arguments). […]

  • 13 Mythbusting | Sense & Sustainability // Jan 26, 2015 at 7:00 am

    […] aside, my very first reaction on reading the post is that the author (Erik Linberg) should read the Debunking Handbook (as should anyone looking to tackle half-truths and outright deception with counter arguments). […]

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