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Mythbusting with fewer explosions

Posted on 28 February 2012 by John Cook

A few articles about myth busting and the Debunking Handbook have been posted over the last 24 hours. This morning, ABC Environment published my article Mythbusting with fewer explosions. They gave the article the tag-line "Busting myths is less like an episode of Mythbusters and more like an Indiana Jones film" (which just goes to show how much better journalists are at succinctly summing up an article in a catchy, single line). I talk about the general principles of debunking myths but also about my myth busting evening tonight in Lane Cove, Sydney (there may still be spots left so click here to register). Here's an excerpt where I explore the idea that myth busting is not just a necessary evil but can be an opportunity for teachable moments:

It's not enough to merely remove the myth. When you debunk misinformation, you leave a gap in the person's understanding. That gap needs to be filled with an alternative explanation. This is a crucial element to a successful debunking - create a gap, fill the gap - that also presents an exciting opportunity.

In Chip and Dan Heath's book Made To Stick, the authors explore how communicators can arouse people's interest to create 'sticky ideas'. One approach is "Gap Theory", based on the fact that curiosity is stirred when we perceive a gap in our knowledge. We've all experienced this - who hasn't sat through a bad movie just to find out how it ends? I watched Lost for several seasons more than I should have for this very reason. To communicate in a compelling, engaging fashion, you need to highlight gaps in people's knowledge, provoke their curiosity then fill the gaps.

Sound familiar? The structure required to debunk a myth - create a gap, fill the gap - is also the key to compelling, engaging communication. Debunking myths doesn't need to be considered just a necessary evil. It's an opportunity to use the response to misinformation as a teachable moment.


Continuing the debunking theme, Think Progress have posted an interview about the Debunking Handbook overnight. Here's an excerpt:

“Because there is such an organized disinformation campaign, we need to be as scientific and evidence based as we can in our response. Which means take advantage of all this psychological research and that will help us form the most effective responses we can in trying to reduce the influence of disinformation.”

“For a long time, scientists have been operating under the information deficit model, saying that if we could just get more information to people, then that will solve the climate problem…but there’s more to it than that. We need to understand how people think, how they process information, so when we do try to reduce the effect of disinformation — and we have to do that — then we can do it more effectively.”


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Comments 1 to 10:

  1. Just as Neville Chamberlain could not grasp the reality of warmongers on the loose, it should not be assumed that the pro-pollutionists are honest skeptics. In the sales game, one of the first priorities is to "qualify the prospect". Buyer? Tire-kicker? Attention-seeker? Gossip-gatherer? There's little value in debunking a mythtake if the opposite side has no interest in the truth.
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  2. owl, yes that applies to the pollution mongers. But most people don't have a vested interest in damaging the world. Among them, there are some who are unreachable, but there's a large muddy middle that honestly thinks climate is unpredictable or the science is still in dispute. They've heard the myths, and think they are truth. Assuming you can get the message to them, it does matter whether you can make it stick.
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  3. Hope the mythbusting event tonight is at the very least educational, John C. Look forward to hearing about it.
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  4. I was there. John covered three myths chosen by the audience. One was temperature record reliability. Another was claims that CO2 is too insignificant to effect the climate. And the final one was the warmth is good bit. He only had a short ptime to do each and I think did well by concentrationg on only a few aguments. The second part of the workshop was alocal family going through some of the things they have done to reduce their carbon footprint.
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  5. I also was there glad that I could meet John (and sneak in his signature on the book) because I don't often go to Brisbane while Lane Cove is just round the corner (more precisely a bicycle ride) from my house in Denistone NSW. I realy like the initiative by Lane Cove Council to combine John's appearance with an example of a local family how shows you how much you can lower your footprint by doing simple things like installing PV panels, taking public transport and eating local food (best if it's your own grown veges). The exemplary family lowered their CO2 emissions from 18Mg to 7Mg a y-1. Good job John together with LCC. Theory of AGW and simple practice that it's possible to tackle it.
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  6. owl905: Neville Chamberlain knew damn well what he was up against, he also knew that the British military were woefully wound down and ill-prepared for the inevitable. The "peace in our time" was a charade to give them time to frantically remobilise and rearm. back to the topic.... ;^)
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  7. I went to the session in Lane Cove's fabulous new library (it's gorgeous!) and found it to be an interesting evening. Most attendees were already concerned about climate change and no diehard deniers were vocal. The format was fun because it promoted active learning by putting the audience in charge. Most of us learnt something new, or were reminded of things we had forgotten. What do I remember 12 hours later? Two things stand out.. I remember John's fridge door analogy that explains why a warmer arctic can lead to a colder Europe. I remember a couple of the graphs... the graph of 20th century temperatures is memorable because of John's explanation for why temps were stable in 1950s and 60s. That's a good example of the point in John's ABC article that it is memorable when a 'knowledge gap' appears and is filled. (John gave industrial sulphate pollution in the 1950s and 60s as the reason. Which leads me to wonder how much MORE warming we would see now if Chinese/Indian industry was clean.) All in all, it was very worthwhile. It's great to see John developing these excellent communication skills. I hope he continues to speak out, and that he can withstand the garbage thrown at effective communicators in this field.
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  8. John, I was thinking about those graphs that you show showing changes in the spectra radiated into space and re-radiated back to Earth that show the changes due to CO2 Changes. Has the effect of water vapour also been done? I ask this because you have denialists who say that they concede the effect of CO2 but they dispute the water vapour increase. But the effects of non precipitating greenhouse gases combined with those of water vapour together put the sensitivity most of the way to the usual estimate of the Charney sensitivity. You do not need a large cloud effect to get the usual estimate. You would need a large negative cloud effect to get a low sensitivity. It puts them on the spot.
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    Response: [JC] The graph I showed comes from Harries et al 2001 and takes the water vapor effect into account. There's a link to the full paper including graphs including the water vapor effect at
  9. "It's not enough to merely remove the myth. When you debunk misinformation, you leave a gap in the person's understanding. That gap needs to be filled with an alternative explanation." I have read similar things in articles on math education. It is not enough to show a student why their misconception is wrong. You have to replace it with the correct concept. For example students often think (a+b)^2 = a^2 + b^2. In explaining why this is false I draw the picture so they can see the missing pieces. But here is something else. On a test they will revert back to the misconception. The stress causes their minds to flip back to their misconception. You might think about if that applies the more general myth busting. The economic down turn was/is a huge stressor.
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  10. Lloyd, the following may be useful for reference, from ultra technical to blogerrific. Ramanathan and Coakley (1978) is a seminal paper, highly detailed and comprehensive, on trace gases and the greenhouse effect. (The models referred to in the paper are numerical representations of radiative transfer in the atmosphere, not GCMs) Ramanathan's 1997 lecture is a slightly(!) less technical explanation of the greenhouse effect, including the role of water vapour. Chris Colose usually does a great job of framing scientific understanding for laypeople.
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