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Claiming that Listerine alleviates cold symptoms is false: To repeat or not to repeat the myth during debunking?

Posted on 22 June 2017 by Stephan Lewandowsky

With terms such as “post-truth” and “fake news” becoming increasingly prominent in the media and public discourse, the ability to effectively correct inaccurate information has never been more pertinent. Unfortunately, the task of correcting misinformation is far from trivial. In many instances, issuing corrections remains only partially effective and people often continue to rely on outdated information. This is known as the continued-influence effect

But this does not mean that debunking of misinformation is necessarily impossible: On the contrary, there are some known techniques that can help make a correction more effective, which John Cook and I summarized in the Debunking Handbook some time ago.

One recommendation in the Debunking Handbook is that it is best to avoid repeating the initial misconception while issuing a correction. This recommendation was based on data available at the time of writing, which suggested that the repetition of the misconception — even when it is corrected in the same sentence — increase its familiarity. For example, the statement “It is false to claim that Listerine alleviates cold symptoms” unavoidably strengthens the link between the two concepts, namely Listerine and alleviating colds, even though the statement seeks to correct that myth.

The potential problem that arises from repeating the myth to correct it is that people are more likely to think that familiar information is true. In consequence, correcting the myth may ironically strengthen its prominence in people’s minds, a phenomenon known as the familiarity backfire effect. 

Recent research, however, has not found a familiarity backfire effect under conditions where it was expected. In a nutshell, two articles published by colleagues and I (with Ullrich Ecker and Briony Swire, respectively, as lead authors) found evidence for familiarity-based processing but failed to find a familiarity backfire effect.

You can read more about this latest research in a series of three blog posts on Shaping Tomorrow's World:

What is the upshot of this latest research?

Although our experiments showed that familiarity-based processing does not lead to a backfire effect in some cases (even when it is expected to occur), our studies remain moot on whether familiarity backfire effects will occur in other circumstances. 

Based on prior theory, we would still expect to observe a familiarity backfire effect when people are distracted while processing corrective information (e.g., driving while listening to a corrective message on the radio). Those expectations remain to be examined by experimentation.

The recommendation to communicators has therefore changed little: As a precaution, avoid repeating the myth when trying to correct it and state the correct information in the affirmative.

Listerine freshens your breath and nothing else.

DBH-AnnotationsFigure 1: Section of the Debunking Handbook with annotations outlining where the wording would change slightly due to the new findings

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Comments 1 to 9:

  1. Very illuminating. It's good to hear this familairity bakfire effect is not always as strong as feared, because it's very difficult addressing science based myths or issues (or anything serious) without putting the key points up front at the top of discussion. It becomes confused and looks like something is being hidden or dodged to do otherwise. Your research is preliminary, but I thought the experiments discussed in the links were reasonably convincing.

    The familiarity backfire effect has also been studied and discussed as related to economic, social, and poltical debate as well, with some views that its better to avoid attracting attention to negative problems, and instead simply either go on the offensive, change the subject, or accentuate the positive or bury the problem text in the middle somewhere. Some say "explaining is losing". However I dont think you can apply this strategy to science. We expect manipulative spin from politicians, but people will be less forgiving when academics indulge in it.

    The research appears to show the familiarity backfire effect doesn't have much effect on people already familiar with a myth, or who are prepared to study it in detail and listen. I think the real problem is that when myths or problem issues are put at the start of discussion, theres a risk some people wont read more than the myth, so see what the counter arguments are, or just skim the counter arguments only briefly, so the myth might spread. It's similar to the use of "click bait" headlines in the media, that are exaggerations, spin, or simply false, but many people dont read past them so are left with false beliefs.

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  2. Random people or educated people?  I think that something like this is going to be an important variable.  People who are familiar with and used to logical and analytical thinking may be more competent in accepting the debunking and having it override false information than people who are not.  People who rely on their gut and their belief system rather than analytical thought would be more vulnerable to the repetition than the debunking.  Effect will depend on audience. 

    One other thing.  Reading this I tripped over this phrase... 

    "our studies remain moot on whether familiarity backfire effects will occur in other circumstances."

    In most cases we see mute used incorrectly.  In this case however, mute (silent) would be (I think) more appropriate than moot (hypothetical - open for debate).  YMMV. I simply know that it caused my reading process to stumble to a halt for a wee while.  

    I think that this is important.  To debunk effectively one has to explain at least once what the error is that is being debunked.  OTOH, and this is important, in many forums the subject is set by the original post.  Often it is worth debunking by starting a new post because when looking at the subject lines there is an obvious propaganda value to those, and no matter how well you debunk in your response, you just repeated the error in the subject... which may well be all that most people ever see.

    Be careful out there



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  3. A lot of energy is being expended on persuading doubters about the reality of climate change.  (I'm excluding those who are ideologically wedded to their denialism.)  The doubters, however, are actually victims of the "propaganda war" (Stefan Rahmstorf's term) on climate science.  Would it not therefore be more effective first to sketch the nature of this "war" and then follow with details of how they've been deceived?

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  4. The range of effects of the myth (from being debunked to 100% backfire) depends on the way the myth is presented. So, the issue herein boils down to the accurate, and easy to understand by the intended audience, presentation by the communicator. Note, that the intended audience must also be considered. A person with phD in the rellevant or related field is interested in different details than a newbe person.

    But above all, the myth should be clearly labeled as a falsehood, with simple and unambiguous words, the simpler the better, especially if expressed not the target person's main language. Complex words as well as colloquial jokes will create confusion. So jokes and satire is IMO unacceptable.

    As an example: a badly frased poster confused even myself, because it used some complex words and some thinly veiled satire. If I was a climate science conspiracy theorist, this poster would only reinforce my opinion. Much better wording of the poster would be simply:

    "A plucky band of bilionaires [...] created a plot: '...'; but the plot is an absurd falsehood"

    which states unambiguously what the myth is and does not allow it to stand but debunks the myth in the same sentence.

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  5. Simple messages are indeed powerful. I mean short sentences, and short, clear, concise explanations.

    Of course this is not appropriate for dedictated enthusiasts, but it works for certain target audiences. This website gets it, by having different levels of explanation, but sometimes the beginners explanation is still quite complex.

    Remember most people are busy people,and dont have the time to read masses of stuff, and others have short attention spans.

    Trump is most definitely not to my preference in presidents, but he undertands certain aspects of communication like simplicity, although he probably takes it a bit far at times to the level of a child. But you know what I mean, he does have certain communication skills of a sort, and knows his target audience (say no more).

    Most science issues revolve around causation and correlation. Most climate science myths can probably be condensed to a brief couple of sentences on both these elements. It's important to cover both, and get the point across on these elements, and not lost in endless detail, unless you are writing or discussing with someone educated, and with the time and interest to take in detail.

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  6. This is useful information.  There's an almost overwhelming human desire to correct someone who says "There's been no global warming in 20 years".  You want to show the many ways this person has been fooled (cherry-picking start dates, cherry-picking temperature surveys, missing the ocean-forest for the atmosphere-trees, etc).  Instead you end up reinforcing the myth.  The problem is the brazen statement of the myth in the first place immediately places you on the defensive.  The fossil fuel companies know that the best defense is a strong offense.

    A better response: "Global warming is indicated in the vast majority of surface temperature records, for all time scales, 15, 20, 25, 100 years, and for both ocean and atmosphere."

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  7. When dealing with temperature 'misclaims', I do not have to restate any of the myths. I start with the values for CO2 in the atmosphere continuing to rise rapidly. The NOAA movie is a presentation of data I refer people to because the site includes lots of related information (and some people seem to "Switch Off" if I refer to SkS information).

    I state that when you look at the full set of temperature data from any source you can clearly see how much the values bounce in the short term but you can clearly see that the temperature has been increasing. I add that the satellite data starts in the late 1970s, not the late 1990s.

    The SkS Temperature Trends tool is handy for seeing the full set of data from several sources (however, some people seem to instantly distrust anything directly from SkS - a testament to the value of this website, but also backfire trigger).

    For those willing to use the SkS Temparture Trend tool to compare surface and satellite data I encourage them to set the years from 1978 to 2018. They can see for themselves how the satellite data for the Lower Troposphere (TLT) shows a temperature trend similar to the surface data.

    I also try to add that the satellite data is not the temperature at the bottom of the accumulated impact of all the CO2 in the atmosphere (sometimes that leads to an opportunity to present more details).

    However, it is unfortunate that there are different baselines for each data set. The difference between the approximate 12 month averages of the non-Satellite data at the start of the 1978 to 2018 plots is from +0.7C for GISTEMP to -1.4C for NOAA. And the satellite values start with 12 month averages of -1C for RSS to -2.1C for UAHv6.0. Those ranges are more than the total increase of the average surface temperature since the late 1800s.

    I try to explain that the trend is what is important. But some people focus on the different temperature values, even claiming that the UAH satellite data being so much lower than the surface temperature data proves that the surface temperature data has been Fudged. When I try to explain the different baselines I quickly find out if the person I am dealing with is genuinely interested in better understanding the issue.

    Those complexities of properly understanding this issue make it prone to easy abuse by very smart people who deliberately want it to be misunderstood. Those smart deliberate trouble-makers can easily become popular by helping to create effective Poor Excuses for undeserving pursuers of more perssonal benefit any way they can get away with.

    The real problem is not the way that climate science is legitimately  communicated.  The real problem is the failure of leaders (winners) in business and government to deal with those type of undeserving people before they can achieve signficant success. Once enough of those type of people get away with becoming a significant portion of the Winners it can be very difficult to Correct the situation because Those undeserving Winners can and do Band Together to Defend and Excuse each other's different unacceptability.

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  8. OPOF @7, what you say makes total sense if you are talking to a friend, or responding on a  website. No need to restate the myth, so you just respond on whats really happening with temperatures (and this can also be a valid response to numerous myths)

    I think the issue being described above is more relating to the media. It's hard for the media to respond to the latest myth doing the rounds in society, without actually stating what it is, and the logical place is to put the myth as the top of discussion. Avoiding being specific about the myth or burying it in the text is confusing for me.

    However I agree about satellite data. A couple of additional things occur to me. If you are just a typical person and not a science expert and look at the UAH satellite data on Roy Spencers website, or over at RSS, the graph looks kind of flat compared to the surface data. This is partly because the vertical scale is simply a bit different I think. When you see the satellite data together with surface data on the same graph, there is much less difference. Of course the satellite data doesnt show as much warming since about 2005, but when seen together with the surface data even that difference is not as huge as it seems.

    And the satellite data doesn't measure temperature directly. It extracts temperatures by measuring changes in the molecules that make up the atmosphere, and this is not as reliable as simple surface thermometer readings.

    As you undoubtably know satellites also do not actually measure surface temperatures where we live, only the middle of the troposphere. But how many other people realise this? 

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  9. nigelj@8,

    I am not convinced that media have to state a climate science myth. The reports should simply present a clear and fairly complete understanding of the science and leave it to the recipient to understand how misleading the myth messages are.

    What should happen is the media that fails to present Good Reasons for their reporting will be more clearly understood to be providing Poor Excuses.

    That does not mean that the Poor Excuses will not be popular. I have mentioned many times that behaving less acceptably affords the Bad Behavers a competitive advantage as long as they can get away with it.

    The failure of leaders in business and government to effectively block the pursuits of Winning by the less acceptable behavers, thwarting their attempts until they learn to change their minds, is a failure of the society they are members of no matter what perceptions of prosperity get away with being temporarily created or prolonged. In fact the larger the development in the wrong direction (away from Good Objectives like the sustainable development goals), the bigger the inevitable correction will be. That applies to individuals, businesses, and nations.

    Trump told no lie when he said that doing responsible changes to correct for past incorrect development regarding climate impacts will be harder on the callous greedy in the USA and many other nations. But they have no one to blame but themselves and those among their predecessors who were just like them.

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