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Debunking Handbook: update and feedback

Posted on 23 January 2012 by John Cook

When we published the Debunking Handbook, I have to admit, we completely underestimated the impact it would make. A few days after the launch, it suddenly went viral with over 150,000 downloads in a single day. This week, it just ticked over 400,000 downloads. We always planned that the Handbook would be useful not just for climate myths but for communicators having to deal with any type of misinformation. Nevertheless, it was surprising to see the Handbook featued on websites as diverse as Richard Dawkins and Silobreaker. A website devoted to debunking MLM myths saw it as "useful when debating with brainwashed members of MLM organizations". A Muslim forum speculated that it "Should be useful when engaging people who believe lies about Islam". Currently, several educators are looking to integrate it into their curriculum.

Here are some excerpts from reviews of the Debunking Handbook:

"I simply cannot believe that John Cook of Skeptical Science and psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky managed, in just 8 pages, to create something as magnificent as their new Debunking Handbook... As someone who teaches science communication, I’m going to recommend Cook’s and Lewandowsky’s handbook to as many folks as I can find."
Chris Mooney, Desmogblog

"...a must-read summary of the scientific literature on how to extract pernicious myths from people’s minds and restore fact-based knowledge."
Brad Johnson, Think Progress

"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... In short, consider the Debunking Handbook a must read and a must keep reference."
A Siegel, Daily Kos

There were a few criticisms also. A science communicator from the University of Western Australia (a colleague of Stephan Lewandowsky) pointed out that in our case study debunking on Page 6, we weren't practising what we preach by using a graphic that emphasised the myth rather than the core facts. Fair point. So we've updated our example debunking and also made a minor tweak to the text on The Overkill Backfire Effect. Click here to download the updated Debunking Handbook.

This post was cross-posted at Shaping Tomorrow's World.

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Comments 1 to 5:

  1. I've studied nuclear power as a potential solution to the problem of replacing fossil fuel use for some years now, ever since Jim Hansen circulated his views calling for a massive deployment of breeder reactors of a specific US design called the IFR. It came to my mind when I saw the "Debunking Handbook", that the negative statements about nuclear power expressed in another of John Cook's books, i.e. "Climate Change Denial" starting on page 143 could stand debunking themselves. It happens that a new book "Plentiful Energy" is out written by two of the people who ran Argonne National Lab when it was the foremost design lab for nuclear reactors that existed in the world. These are the two men most responsible for the design of the reactor Hansen is touting. This reactor design was the culmination of the reactor design work Argonne produced. The design was intended to directly address all supposed failings of nuclear power generation technology. The reactor produces more fuel than it uses. The fuel is a different type than used in existing reactors and can be reprocessed on site so potential bomb making material is sent back into the reactor to be burnt. The reprocessing setup can't be manipulated to produce highly refined bomb grade material in any case. The waste stream that leaves the reactor site decays back to the level of radioactivity of natural ore in a few hundred years. Nothing would have to be mined for hundreds of years as the design can burn the waste generated by the existing reactor types as well as the massive stocks of depleted uranium. It is a solution for the existing nuclear waste problem as well as the solution for how to replace fossil fuels. The authors make the case that the program to build the design at full scale as the last step prior to commercialization was terminated in 1994 by anti nuclear people led by John Kerry in the US Senate backed by the newly inaugurated President Clinton using as their rationale arguments that don't stand up to examination. "We don't need it", is what Kerry said on the Senate floor. Well that was before it became apparent to people that we do need massive amounts of low carbon energy that can be produced for the foreseeable future because of climate change. I hope John and his co-author Dr Haydn Washington read "Plentiful Energy" and see if they would stand by what is in "Climate Change Denial" about nuclear power afterward. When Hansen was touring New Zealand recently he was asked about nuclear power. He said: "it's really a case of you should be examining that, along with all the other alternatives, because we have an emergency situation".
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  2. Err, no thanks on the nuclear power here in NZ. Too damn expensive. Our wind farms require no subsidies. I think that indicates how lucky we are.
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  3. David, while obviously off topic here, I cannot find a more appropriate topic for this discussion, so will answer you here. I have a benchmark for nuclear power. The use of nuclear power will inevitably involve the disposal of high grade nuclear waste. I understand that third or fourth generation reactors will limit the amount that is required for disposal, but some will still require disposal. The benchmark I have is that the nuclear waste be disposed of in such a way that that: 1) Its average radioactivity be equal to or less than that of Uranium ore; 2) It be just as economically costly to collect into a more concentrated form as it is to process uranium ore to reactor fuel; and 3) The disposal be in an area which is not prone to faulting or leaching. The reason for the benchmark is very simple: nuclear waste is a long term problem, and we cannot guarantee political stability in the long term. Therefore we should dispose of nuclear waste in a way which makes the waste no more accessible than the original uranium was. By so doing, we have at least not made the risks to our descendants worse than if we had just left the uranium in the ground. The universal reaction to this benchmark by people who propose the use of nuclear power to date has been that it is a ridiculously high, and uneconomic standard. Well, IMO it is a minimum standard (and also a standard environmental organizations will have great difficulty objecting to). If nuclear power is uneconomic when this standard is applied relative to renewable power, than nuclear power is uneconomic simpliciter, and should not be part of a future energy mix. If nuclear power is economic with this standard applied, then by all means we should develop it provided we have adequate safe guards against operation accidents, accidental losses, and security risks (which are issues for our generation, and hence can be dealt with democratically). I interpret the reflex rejection of this standard by nuclear advocates as equivalent to the reflex downplaying of the Fukushima reactor crisis. In the few days immediately after the disaster, almost every pro-nuclear blogger I know downplayed the accident, predicting that there would be zero deaths, and making jokes about the radioactivity of bananas. My response to that at the time is that they just could not know at the time, and obviously so. That they would respond in that way, however, shows that they are not to be trusted when they say nuclear power is safe. They just don't get the issues involved. I am on record on this site (immediately after the disaster, and I stand by the opinion in hindsight) of saying that Fukushima is not a reason to give up on nuclear power, and I am disappointed that Germany has decided to wind back its nuclear program so fast in response (which does not show a proper recognition of relative risks). But the fact that so many pro-nuclear advocates (and very intelligent, scientist pro-nuclear advocates) just don't get the safety concerns is, IMO, reason to not proceed with nuclear power. If the people who propose (and design) nuclear plants don't get the safety concerns, you can have no confidence that their designs will actually satisfy those concerns, regardless of their reassurances.
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  4. I'd add one more criterion to Tom's list. I'd like a future reactor design to be able to maintain containment and a stable temperature without external services from within minutes of a shutdown. In an increasingly unstable geopolitical environment, an event leading to loss of external services with minimal warning seems to be an increasingly plausible scenario. As far as I am aware, no Gen3+ design meets this criteria. I think some Gen4 designs may do so. The Hyperion and Toshiba 4S reactors are both small scale fast reactors with liquid metal coolant, which thus appear to draw on the IFR research. (Probably the FUJI MSR does as well). See the article List of small nuclear reactor designs for more.
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  5. Tom I think your benchmark for whether or not you advocate nuclear power is probably too high. We shouldn't simply be comparing nuclear power's socio-economic costs to that of renewable power in some sort of absolute sense. We should be comparing the impact of pushing for the adoption of both nuclear and renewable energy sources vs pushing for renewable sources without nuclear. The resources and public, private and gov't attitudes to researching and rolling out renewable and nuclear power sources aren't mutually inclusive. That is to say, we will be able to improve our socio-eco-enviro situation faster (by removing fossil fuels from the energy grid) if we engage in the promotion of both alternative power sources.
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