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Debunk me! "Lean, mean and easy to read ..."

by a siegel Thu Dec 8th, 2011 at 07:48:15 AM EST

Human society being what it is, we live in a world filled with myths.

By doing that list, I just broke the cardinal law of debunking myths:  Don't lead with and (certainly) don't bold the myth because, as per The Familiarity Backfire Effect, this just reinforces the myth.  When done wrong, "debunking reinforces the myths. ... emphasis of debunking should be on the facts not the myth. You goal is to increase people's familiarity with the facts."

Recently put out (and free to download), written by John Cook and Stephan Lewandowsky, is the Debunking Handbook (or here).  As the authors explain

Although there is a great deal of psychological research on misinformation, there's no summary of the literature that offers practical guidelines on the most effective ways of reducing the influence of myths. The Debunking Handbook boils the research down into a short, simple summary, intended as a guide for communicators in all areas (not just climate) who encounter misinformation.

Long concerned about the challenges of dealing with uprooted people's false concepts to help foster more reality-based understanding to enable better decision-making (at all levels), 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.  As Brad Johnson put it, the handbook is
a must-read summary of the scientific literature on how to extract pernicious myths from people's minds and restore fact-based knowledge. ... Although the examples used come primarily from the world of climate science, the tools in the Debunking Handbook are key for debunking other myths about science, economics, and society.

The executive summary:

Debunking myths is problematic. Unless great care is taken, any effort to debunk misinformation can inadvertently reinforce the very myths one seeks to correct. To avoid these "backfire effects", an effective debunking requires three major elements. First, the refutation must focus on core facts rather than the myth to avoid the misinformation becoming more familiar. Second, any mention of a myth should be preceded by explicit warnings to notify the reader that the upcoming information is false. Finally, the refutation should include an alternative explanation that accounts for important qualities in the original misinformation.

The handbook has six one-page pieces with a seventh page providing the references. Clearly written, with reinforcing graphics, this is a clear and easy read (which helps sets an example for good myth-busting). Here, in brief, are the six points

Debunking the first myth:  Sadly "mud sticks"

Those in the reality-based world often deal with things in the 'information deficit' model.  If people only knew the facts and had more information, the problem would be solved. In dealing with myths, we have to engage the thinking and thought processes rather than simply the database of information.

A common misconception about myths is the notion that removing its influence is as simple as packing more information into people's heads. This approach assumes that public misperceptions are due to a lack of knowledge and that the solution is more information - in science communication, it's known as the "information deficit model". But that model is wrong: people don't process information as simply as a hard drive downloading data.

And, worsening this challenge is that once the mis (or dis) information is there, it is nearly impossible to totally dislodge it from people's thinking. Worse off, of course, is that debunking the myth efforts, if poorly done, can and will) "make matters worse.
So this handbook has a specific focus - providing practical tips to effectively debunk misinformation and avoid the various backfire effects.

The Familiarity Backfire Effect

Sigh, to debunk the myth requires mentioning it?  Oops, not necessarily. And, more importantly, if you have to mention it make sure to do so within a context. "Your debunking should begin with the facts", not emphasize (e.g., no bolding people) the myth, and provide a context (an alternative explanation) of how the myth misleads.  E.g., sandwich the myth with facts and a factual explanation of why it is a myth, subordinating the 'myth' itself into a minor role in the conversation.

Overkill Backfire Effect

If one fact is good, 100 must be great? Yet again, a myth.  At some point, we hit overload "because processing many arguments takes more effort than just considering a few.  A simply myth is more cognitively attractive than an over-complicated correction."

The solution is to keep you content lean, mean and easy to read.

The Worldview Backfire Effect

In essence, this really says 'give up hope' for the most doctrinaire since they will struggle (consciously and unconsciously with the Confirmation Bias) to come up with ways information reinforces their position and deride/denigrate anything that doesn't fit (and fulfill) their weltanschauung.

This was demonstrated when Republicans who believed Saddam Hussein was linked to the 9/11 terrorist attacks were provided with evidence that there was no link between the two, including a direct quote from President George Bush.11 Only 2% of participants changed their mind (although interestingly, 14% denied that they believed the link in the first place). The vast majority clung to the link between Iraq and 9/11, employing a range of arguments to brush aside the evidence. The most common response was attitude bolstering - bringing supporting facts to mind while ignoring any contrary facts. The process of bringing to the fore supporting facts resulted in strengthening people's erroneous belief.

Since the backfire effect is strongest in those with already fixed views, this means that
outreaches should be directed towards the undecided majority rather than the unswayable minority

More importantly, "messages can be presented in ways the reduce the usual psychological resistance."  Use self-affirmation to build confidence that enables people to question themselves and frame discussions in ways appropriate to the audience.
Self-affirmation and framing aren't about manipulating people. They give the facts a fighting chance.

Mind the Gap

An interesting item, which I'd never concerned before the Handbook, is that the debunking effort creates a void (a gap in people's mental model) and nature abhors a vacuum.  For effective debunking, "your debunking must fill that gap" with an alternative (truthful) explanation.

An FYI from this section, "if your content can be expressed visually, always opt for a graphic in your debunking."

Anatomy of an effective debunking

Bringing all the different threads together, an
effective debunking requires:

  • Core facts--a refutation should emphasise the facts, not the myth. Present only key facts to avoid an Overkill Backfire Effect;

  • Explicit warnings--before any mention of a myth, text or visual cues should warn that the upcoming information is false;

  • Alternative explanation--any gaps left by the debunking need to be filled. This may be achieved by providing an alternative causal explanation for why the myth is wrong and, optionally, why the misinformers promoted the myth in the first place;

  • Graphics - core facts should be displayed graphically if possible.

In short, consider the Debunking Handbook a must read and a must keep reference.

I took a geography class a few years ago where the lead-off presentation was a showing of the film "What The Bleep Do We Know?" It's a documentary that tries to use quantum physics as some sort of excuse for arguing that we don't "know" anything. Which is of course a complex topic in philosophy but not exactly relevant to any particularly practical problem.

The thing that bothered me about it was that it seemed to weaken the argument for using the scientific method for uncovering objective truth. I think that was the opposite of what the instructor was trying to accomplish, which was to reinforce the scientific credentials of geography (which are weak).

But what is particularly troubling is how modern physics, which is unquestionably difficult to understand, its difficulty does not weaken its objective correctness. The layman doesn't recognize that the current models give measurably correct answers, and that most of the argumentation is about marginal points of real interest only to specialists. But with this sort of "documentary" floating around, the easy layman's interpretation is that physics is just another bunch of hokum, like sociology, economics, and climate science, and therefore we should revert to a political system based on raw power backed by religion and superstition.

So the philosophers should go back into their corner, or something...

by asdf on Fri Dec 9th, 2011 at 10:48:42 AM EST
That movie is a load of rubbish that abuses science from one end to the other.
by rifek on Thu Dec 15th, 2011 at 09:36:52 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Looks good.

To expand on why you should not focus on the myth: if you want to convince somebody that what he or she believes (lets call it A) is wrong a frontal assault in general reinforces the position as they spend time arguing why their opinion is right. Instead if you convince them of something they do not oppose (B), but eventually will contradict their original position, if B is set more firmly then A, they will abandon A and make their own rationalisations.

And ditto on the gap, had not heard about it before. But it is accurate in my experience. If you argue efficiently that X is wrong, you will get the question "but then what?" and need to be able to answer that or your argument will loose strenght. This is a problem when confronting something where the apparent question is totally off-planet.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Fri Dec 9th, 2011 at 03:34:07 PM EST
Just saw such a good example of a question not even making sense.

Episode 1313 - Dances With Smurfs

Cartman:Lunch today is going to be pizza. Again. [exhales forcefully] Friends, our school is dying and you know it. You feel it. You're like, you're like me; you wanna change it. But ohhh no, Wendy Testaburger's not gonna let that happen! This is not the school we grew up in, and ...and I don't know if we can get it back. [leaves his desk and walks over to a mobile blackboard] So let's take a look at exactly what our school president wants. You know, what is she trying to achieve?

Let's just take a look at these Keywords here: Wendy's made it clear she wants our school to be a more Integrated Leftist and Liberal place! But you see whatn that happens, what we get is a Socialist, Modern, Utopian, Reformed, Farce of a School. So when you look closely it becomes very obvious what Wendy wants. K I L L S M U R F S. Our school president ...wants to kill Smurfs.
Cartman:I don't know if we're turning into a Smurf-hating school or what we're turning into, but unless you ask why [writes Y on the board], we're gonna transform into something.
[South Park Elementary, school hallway, day. Wendy is at her locker when Butters approaches with a group of friends. We'll call them Melvins, after the group he formed with Dougie and Pip back in Season 1]
Butters:Hey Wendy! Wendy! Is it true?
Wendy:Is what true?
Butters:That you hate Smurfs?
Wendy:I don't have time for this.
Butters:Hey now! Me and us fellers were just asking questions!
Melvins:Yeah, that's right. We can ask. [Casey is among them]
Wendy:Try to understand this: all I do is try to help run student council. I don't give a crap about Smurfs!
Butters:[gasps and points] It IS true!
Melvin 1:Oh my God!
Melvin 2:Yeah, bemememe
Melvin 3:Oh my God!
Wendy:Maybe you guys should check into what student council actually does, before you just blindly listen to what some idiot with a microphone tells you! [storms off]
Butters:What did the Smurfs ever do to you! Ya bitch! I just called the president a bitch.
Melvin 1:That was cool.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se
by A swedish kind of death on Sun Dec 11th, 2011 at 03:03:56 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Typical day in US politics.
by rifek on Thu Dec 15th, 2011 at 09:40:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]
You seem to believe that if two contradictory world views are in your head, some process automatically makes them fight to the death.

My understanding of current psychological theory is that your mind simply compartmentalizes one of them, to prevent conflict. Just like your lungs build tubercles to isolate the TB germs.

Works for me. Means that maybe your debunking arguments need to consider planting a seed that can be accepted into the compartment the truth is trapped in, so it can let the new idea grow.

I've found that planting seeds, fertilizing and watering them, with the overt explanation that you're just gardening for flowers works. Otherwise I'd just be another winger, eh?

(Now what is the idea I'm debunking, again?)

Align culture with our nature. Ot else!

by ormondotvos (ormond.otvosnospamgmialcon) on Mon Dec 12th, 2011 at 03:57:13 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Not automatically, no. Compartmentalizing works just fine. But they can come into conflict, mostly from having to base actions on either one.

My experience is mostly in political processes, so say that somebody because they hold the belief A is going to vote X (in a general election, or in an internal process), and you convince them of belief B that would support voting Y instead, then eventually they reach the voting point, and one takes priority over the other. Until the voting point compartmentalization works just fine, but after that rationalisation starts to abandon the belief they acted against, in order to square beliefs with actions. A year later they may hold nothing but scorn for belief A.

To have a more everyday example, you go to purchase a car or appliance or something. You have an idea of why - say that you want a cheap thing. The succesfull salesperson will then show you a cheap item and praise some of its virtues, in order to get you to make a decision based on both price and the virtues of the machine. Then the salesperson shows you a somewhat more expensive model that is even better and since you just decided that you do care about said virtues you are more likely to shift to the expensive model.

But yes, in general planting seeds is a good strategy.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Mon Dec 12th, 2011 at 01:44:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]
This is better than usual attempts at science communication, but I still think it fundamentally doesn't get what's needed - in the sense that there's still an implication that fact-based communication is inherently persuasive.

Unfortunately, it isn't. Most people don't process the world by learning facts, because they don't find facts inherently persuasive in themselves.

What persuades them is their personal relationship with an issue, or with a self-defined group identity.

A large part of the basis of narrative logic is that relationships are either supportive or adversarial. So it's impossible to debunk narratives effectively if you don't begin by persuading individuals that your relationship with them is supportive.

People who don't support science - for whatever reasons - see facets of science as hostile, aggressive, intrusive, or controlling. They don't identify with it as a useful world view.

Debunking frames won't change this.

For what it's worth, I think NASA have become very good at science communication. If you watch their presentations they frame achievements with emotional take-aways that attempt to make projects sound exciting and fun. They also 'narrative-ise' achievements by referring to movies, TV, and popular culture.

That works much better than listing tech specs and attempting to explain geeky science details.

Economic persuasion should be the same. It's not enough for the other point of view to be factually wrong - it has to become unfashionable, or even unthinkable.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Sun Dec 11th, 2011 at 02:05:04 PM EST
The Limbic system - heavily connected to the pre-frontal cortex - is first stage processing of data and Information.  So it gets to, and does, tag and attach emotional content on input before shipping it out to the other parts of the brain.   Research has shown (D'amato, et. al.) without this tagging people can cogitate but they can't make decisions - good or bad.  Thus emotive thinking (ref: Logical Positivism) is fundamental to the way the brain is hard-wired together.

For the Left to ignore this is as Reality-Challenged as the ravings of any RW nut case one cares to point at.  

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Sun Dec 11th, 2011 at 02:45:04 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Sounds good to me. Smart ideologues are emotionally attached to their systems. Attack the system, they fight back.

Align culture with our nature. Ot else!
by ormondotvos (ormond.otvosnospamgmialcon) on Mon Dec 12th, 2011 at 04:06:30 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Logical thinking may be a form of meditation to many. At the end of Robert Anton Wilson's Prometheus Rising, parallels are drawn between yoga techniques and Timothy Leary's Eight Circuit Model of Consciousness. To go to meditative states ("circuit 5" and beyond), you need first to quiet down the basic bio-survival, emotional-territorial, socio-sexual and rational circuits. But even to reach rational thinking ("circuit 3" or 4) some breathing or calming down work has to be done first... From this point, many people probably never consider that math and many other problems are not solved by wondering or fighting, who is the smartest or coolest around here.

Other idea I would like to throw in is the notion of pacing of the hypnotic and NLP practice. It is basically acknowledgment of other human being and his perception. It apparently goes a long way to relaxing limbic resistance.

by das monde on Mon Dec 12th, 2011 at 09:47:04 AM EST
[ Parent ]
In other words, in order to defeat a mith you don't just need to debunk it, or not even. You have to present an alternative myth.

The ability to selectively pay attention to the facts that support one's favoured myths means that it's not even true that the alternative myth should "have the advantage of being consistent with the facts" (or with more facts).

tens of millions of people stand to see their lives ruined because the bureaucrats at the ECB don't understand introductory economics -- Dean Baker

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Dec 14th, 2011 at 05:19:17 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I read "advantage" as just a moral argument for doing so (They will be better off with the new myth!) and not something that will make convincing easier. But I might be a tad cynic in my reading.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se
by A swedish kind of death on Wed Dec 14th, 2011 at 07:59:18 AM EST
[ Parent ]
If you wish a certain set of people to promote the myth, it should be founded on facts ... but that's about exposure, its not about contagion. The contagiousness of the myth is primarily based on things other than whether it is founded in facts ...

... well, unless the facts that it is founded on happen to be part of the defensive rationalizations for already entrenched systems, and those particular facts are tricky for progressives to use, since that system may well be the one under attack by another prospective member of a change coalition.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Wed Dec 14th, 2011 at 06:35:39 PM EST
[ Parent ]
As Sam Clemens put it, "Show me where a man gets his corn pone, and I'll show you where he gets his opinions."
by rifek on Thu Dec 15th, 2011 at 09:42:58 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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