Monthly Archives: January 2012

Debunking – how to do it and why many of us get it wrong

Debunking is a necessary part of skepticism and intellectually rigorous discourse. Unfortunately, many of us writers (me included), instead of destroying myths in a puff of facts and logic, we may actually be reinforcing said myths in the minds of others. Time for a change of approach…

I’ve been going about this all wrong. By “this” I mean the approach to blogging and as someone who claims to change one’s mind when the evidence suggests so, I must embrace the research that has been neatly compiled in this superb (free) document – The Debunking Handbook. Do yourself a favour and read this short ebook.

In the book, you will learn what the psychological research says about how to communicate in order to update and correct the information inside a person’s head. Specifically, you’ll learn about the various backfire effects that often hinder writers attempting to dispel myths, including:

  • The Familiarity Backfire Effect
  • The Overkill Backfire Effect
  • The Worldview Bsckfire Effect.

The book describes approaches to presenting information that increases the probability of successfully changing minds (reducing the likelihood of backfire).

**For background on The Debunking Handbook and why it was created, listen to the Point of Inquiry interview with one of the authors, John Cook, Climate Communication Fellow for the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland in Australia.**

Don’t use a nuclear weapon where a simple pistol would do

I had been conscious of the fact that in writing 1000 word-plus blog posts may not be doing the reader any favours. In attempting to thoroughly obliterate ridiculous arguments and myths, I may have inadvertently reinforced the scandalous memes I was aiming my skeptical rocket launcher at.

Any good writer, especially the web content kind, knows the rule is that brevity is king. This is certainly true in the sense that people just don’t have the time or patience to read something that threatens to overturn the schedule for more than 5 minutes.

For a science writer and skeptic, this appeal to brevity takes on new meaning when the research quite clearly shows that excessive verbose corrections of myths will often lead to strengthening a myth’s hold on a person’s mind.

Besides, the cognitive appeal of a short snappy myth only increases when weighed up against a giant 20 point debunking.

So, I must be humble before the evidence and thank the authors of The Debunking Handbook for tying together what many of us intuitively knew about science writing but failed to really understand.

The Debunking Handbook is written by John Cook and Professor Lewandowsky – Australian scientists and founders of –  a great climate change resource for the public.