The Myth Debunking One-Pager

In late 2011, I co-authored the Debunking Handbook with Stephan Lewandowsky. The purpose of the handbook was to summarise all the psychological research into misinformation and debunking into a short, concise, practical guide. We published a much more comprehensive scholarly review afterwards. Nevertheless, the much shorter version has always been the preferred option.

Until, perhaps, now. I was asked recently if I could boil down the key points of the Debunking Handbook into a one-pager. Apparently boiling down several decades of psychological research into six plain-English, graphics-heavy pages is too much in the age of Twitter :-)

As a result, here is the Debunking One-Pager:

Debunking One-Pager

An effective debunking is more about the fact than the myth

There are two major elements to an effective debunking. The most important thing when debunking a myth is identifying a compelling, memorable factual alternative to the myth. If you're debunking "the sun is causing global warming" and you're eliminating the sun as the cause, how do you communicate the alternative cause in a compelling manner? An effective debunking is more about the fact than the myth.

Nevertheless, you still need to mention the myth. In order for people to mentally label a myth as false, you need to first 'activate' it in their minds. Think of it like getting a flu shot. In order to inoculate yourself from a virus, you get exposed to a weaker version of the virus. This enables you to build up resistance when you encounter the real virus. Similarly, a debunking exposes the reader to a weaker version of the myth. That way, you inoculate people for when they encounter the misinformation.

This is why when communicating science, consider also explaining how the science might be distorted. Without that explanation, people might encounter misinformation down the track and have no way of reconciling the myth with the science. But if the science is accompanied with an explanation of how the myth distorts the science, then they can reconcile the contradiction. I recently presented my PhD research at the AGU Fall meeting, explaining how inoculating people against myths not only neutralizes the misinformation, it also discredits the source of the misinformation.

Oh and to pre-empt the wise-guy who asks for an even shorter version – a Debunking Tweet – I'll paraphrase from the Heath brothers:

Fight sticky myths with stickier facts.

Here is the Debunking One-Pager in PDF form. You can also access it via the short URL

Posted by John Cook on Thursday, 20 March, 2014

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