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.”