Know your brain: how to debunk a myth

Nowadays, scientists increasingly recognize the need to step up as teachers in the public sphere. However, many scientists labor under the delusion that if we make a good argument–airtight, logical, full of verified facts–then our job is done. If the recipient of our spiel doesn’t get it, then it’s on them (poor ignorant fool) we’ve done our part.

But convincing someone, especially when it means dissuading them of what they think they know, is far more complicated. The folks at Skeptical Science have a great resource–a downloadable PDF called the Debunking Handbook–that lays out the science and sociology of debunking myths. A bit of summary below the fold.

  1. Avoid stating the myth you are debunking , at least at the outset. In the Familiarity Backfire Effect you risk reinforcing the very idea you are trying to kill. You see this in politics: the minute you have your opponent using your framing of the issue, you have ceded much of the argument right off the bat. Solution:  Focus on the facts at the outset, then mention the myth and why it distorts the truth.
  2. KISS–keep it simple, silly. You may be able to give an entire seminar on the subject, but you risk sounding like a bore and, in the Overkill Backfire Effect, confusing your audience. It pains me to say this, but if you can make your opening gambit in the form of a truly effective tweet, you are going about it the right way.
  3. Choose your audience.  Due to Confirmation Bias–the tendency for the seriously convinced to ignore what they don’t believe (and thus don’t want to hear)–you are likely wasting your time arguing with such folks. It is tempting–Uncle Ed looks so smug sitting there across the table–but frankly, you won’t walk away from the encounter feeling all that good and, more to the point, you will likely end up reinforcing the p.o.v. of the person you were trying to convince. That is the sad truth of confirmation bias. Instead focus your efforts on those who politely disagree, and whose eye’s don’t dilate when you mention “global climate change”, “evolution”, or …

In the end, the Debunking handbook breaks it down this way. Every good debunking needs

  • A concise statement of the core facts
  • An explicit warning that what follows next ain’t true.
  • A concise statement of the myth.
  • Some explanation of how folks who accept the myth may have come to believe it.
  • Graphics: go all multimedia. In the realm of good graphics, few are as good as the one they close the essay with.


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