The Science of Debiasing: The New “Debunking Handbook” Is a Treasure Trove For Defenders of Reason

Read time: 3 mins

For quite some time here at DeSmogBlog, I’ve been writing about the growing science of irrationality—in other words, our ever-better scientific understanding of why people reject clearly correct information. I believe we can’t possibly get to a better place, in debates over issues like global warming, until we understand why getting facts across turns out to be so difficult.

A large amount of psychological science has now been published on this matter—but boiling it all down into a practical, usable guide for someone who wants to communicate in a scientifically-informed way? Not so much.

Not until now.

I simply cannot believe that John Cook of Skeptical Science and psychologist Stephan Lewandowsky managed, in just 8 pages, to create something as magnificent as their new Debunking Handbook. It is packed not only with wonderful graphics, but also with a clear explanation of why many attempts to defeat misinformation fail, and what steps must be taken to do a better job.

The core issue, of course, is one that I’ve written much about—too many scientists assume that that facts win out on their own, but that isn’t actually true. If you base your communication strategy on this misconception, you will fail very badly.

Instead, Cook and Lewandowky explain that there are a variety of “backfires” that can be triggered by uninformed communication styles. Stating a myth before debunking can actually reinforce it. Debunking a myth with an overload of information can also backfire. And attacking a worldview can backfire most of all.

So what do you do? You should read their guide, but basically it boils down to several principles:

1.       Don’t lead with the wrong view you’re trying to debunk, but rather, with the correct view you want to instill.

2.       Don’t overload people with information. Be “lean, mean, and easy to read.”

3.       Don’t attack worldviews—either find more persuadable audiences, or defuse deeply seated ideological resistance through practices like framing and self-affirmation, which reduce defensiveness. “Self affirmation and framing aren’t about manipulating people,” write Cook and Lewandowsky, “They give the facts a fighting chance.”

4.       Don’t leave someone with nothing to believe—if you want to unseat a myth, you’d better provide a better real explanation in its place. “When you debunk a myth, you create a gap in the person’s mind,” reads the Handbook. “To be effective, your debunking must fill the gap.”

On top of these key points, there are a variety of more practical bits of advice like:

1.       Use graphics to convey correct information. Especially graphics as good as the ones that Cook and Lewandowsky use.

2.       Use sound bites. Your bottom line needs to be Tweet-able.

3.       Sometimes, it is better to reduce the credibility of a source than to frontally attack its wrong claims.

As someone who teaches science communication, I’m going to recommend Cook’s and Lewandowsky’s handbook to as many folks as I can find.

Perhaps the best aspect of all: They follow their own principles. They are short, sweet, use brilliant graphics and….well, if you don’t believe in this approach to science communication already, they’ll change your mind.

If anything can, anyway.

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I simply wanted to thank you for your efforts, for …War on Science and Unscientific America. Long ago, one of my teachers, Skip Rappaport (Ann Arbor) wrote an article called “Maladaptation in Social Systems” (1977). He predicted much of what is now happening. In 1993, David Goodstein wrote “scientific PhD problems” in The American Scholar, vol. 62, No. 2, Spring 1993, p. 215. Goodstein dealt with the no job market for PhDs well, and correctly, back then.

Finally, I highly recommend Roy A.(Skip) Rappaport’s Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (1997, Cambridge U Press). It goes a long way toward explaining what happens in cases like the bonkers Dawkins versus the other side nutballs debates that you mention (their fervency and fanaticism), and toward explaining how it is that religion serves as such a “marker” among the varieties of human societies.  Religion is very much the group boundary marking phenomenon that Durkheim said it was in 1912 (despite modern and not so modern denials of tha fact).

I do a demonstration on occasion down at Air and Space for kids, and mainly I try to get them to have fun with spectroscopy, and with how we know what the stars are made of, just for fun. One of the things that often gets lost is that (despite all the egos), many of the very best did the stuff because it was, in a very real sense, fun (Sagan, and also Skip Rappaport would have said so). That part often gets lost.

All best wishes in your work. I am not really a blogger, and only took this opportunity to say thank you, in this drawn out way. Dave Thomas, Rockville MD USA 

for the kind words. I need to look for that book. 

Sagan said, I believe, that when you're in love, you want to tell everybody, and that's how he felt about science.

Sharing that enthusiasm with kids, as you're doing, is an immense contribution.

I’ll be checking out The Debunking Handbook, it sounds good. Thanks for spreading the word.

I’d like to return the favour by mentioning some research done by John Jost at NYU. He and some colleagues work in the field of social psychology with a special interest in political and ideological psychology. They’ve come up with a thesis called ‘system justification theory’ which states most people tend to justify the status quo regardless of evidence to the contrary, and their work is on trying to understand why.

John Jost:

Here is a paper they did on climate change denial:

 System justification, the denial of global warming, and the possibility of “system-sanctioned change.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36, 326-338.,%20Jost,%20&%20Goldsmith%20(2010)%20System%20justification,%20the%20denial%20of%20global%20warming.PDF

I dearly hope that John Jost’s scholarly work makes it into Chris’ book (hint, hint).

System Justification Theory

There are obvious ideological reasons for why some people reject climate change but SJT appears to show an inherent rationalizing ability that some people employ to dismiss evidence. The status quo – whatever it may be – therefore gets an undeserving boost.

Also, and I won’t claim any level of expertise, Jost demonstrates the assymetrical aspect (my term) of attitudes. The marketplace of ideas is frequently a competion between real science on the political left and bad faith disinformation on the political right.


“There are obvious ideological reasons for why some people reject climate change”

= 90% of AGW deniers on this forum.

Maintaining the status quo & being resistant to change are definitely traits of Conservatives. For many, those qualities predetermined their opposition to AGW long before they even heard about the science.

My attention has been on the self-deluding aspects of rightwing thought lately. The resistance to change that Hierarchical-Individualists experience has led them further and further away from reality. Some part of this is fossil fuel industry disinformation that like-minded individuals consume but there’s still a substantial denialist component to the phenomenon. Their reality is affect driven, which allows them to ignore overwhelming counter-evidence to their beliefs.

I originally puzzled over the popularity of escapist literature, etc., which surged at times such as the late 19th century and during the Depression. Powerful counter-evidence to peoples’ beliefs didn’t move them to change their minds, but rather, they fled to a make-believe reality in which whimsical rules applied.

…in terms of what I leave behind on online forums. (Not so much here… sorry.)

I noticed extremely toxic bile all over public forums, in more popular locations, like news paper web sites.  They are attempting to disclaim anything GHG related.  I’ve never seen the like.  It goes way beyond your standard internet spat.  (Its like inviting a gang over, and watching them trash your house.)

What I’ve been doing is responding the statements in calm even handed ways, asking for citations to the myths, etc.  Then providing accurate statements and links to good science or papers that provide the correct opinion.  This generally results in actual attacks, the more personal the better.

My idea is is that if Joe public was to read all that denier drivel then they’d see nice calm accurate responses from the other side.  I also make a point of getting the last word in (first visible in on the forums).  I want that nice calm good stuff to be the first thing other people see.

I kinda picked the idea up from here;

I find that links are an excellent doorway to lots more good and real information.  I also notice that deniers rarely provide links.  I feel that this is the case because they either know what they are claiming is crap, or that they simply don’t understand why they think the way they do.  (I’m still fuzzy on this.)

“My idea is is that if Joe public was to read all that denier drivel then they’d see nice calm accurate responses from the other side.”

I think that serves a purpose in most cases, but I sometimes feel that, not being vocal enough, means we get drowned out by a political & industry astro turf opposition. The end to the Vietnam war didn’t come about by people calmly saying “no, killing innocents is wrong”.

Only by graphic, in your face examples of what was happening & a very vocal protest put an end to it. Otherwise they wouild have never stopped trying to save face.

For right wing partisans, even having their own denier scientists admit they are wrong would not be enough. Only a change from their political party will change their POV. I believe you are right, that the first course of action should be a calm reasoned response. Failing that, fight fire with fire. Diplomacy is not a concept these people understand.

“I also notice that deniers rarely provide links.”

Thats almost a given. They know they have little evidence. They operate by rumours & opinions. They know their weak spot is facts, so they don’t want to be drawn into providing citatation, when that just leads to a world of pain for them & even worse…the truth. Instead, they rely on repetition of the same memes over & over. Hoping that their BS will rub off on someone equally as gullible as them.

and thanks to the hippie demonstrations in California, the war ended and Vietnam became a commie paradise where nothing bad ever happened again - certainly the masses didn’t suffer at all.

yep those hippies saved the day back then and now they’re doing it again with the occupy movement… which has the purpose of …. piling up garbage to bring about justice?  … something like that. 

After reading The Debunking Handbook, I reckon that the propagandists for AGW denial are way ahead of it.  For example, it suggests:

“When you debunk a myth, you create a gap in the person’s mind. To be effective, your debunking must fill that gap.”


“Another alternative narrative might be to explain why the misinformer promoted the myth. Arousing suspicion of the source of misinformation has been shown to further reduce the influence of misinformation.”

This is why the deniers have recently been concentrating their efforts on undermining the credibility of the IPCC. They also ruthlessly hammer away at the notion that climatologists are in it for the money, to nullify any mention of, for example, the Koch brothers’ influence.

Another advantage the deniers have is that much of the media is on their side, and they provide “helpful” press releases to any that are wavering.  In general, even if it’s possible to respond to an article in a blog, the techniques suggested to emphasise points using font styles and graphics are not available. The propagandists know that any responses are just firefighting, after the myths have been implanted.  They also send in swat teams to drown out anyone who seems to be going off message effectively.

Ultimately, I think this will only be resolved either when the evidence for AGW is plain for all to see (by which time it will probably be too late to do anything about it), or if someone as rich as the Koch brothers steps up to fund an equally powerful mechanism to get the truth out first.

It might be worthwile to examine your own AGW beliefs in regards to this handbook. Sure provides an insight into how the religion operates. Instead of trying to obtain some factual evidence to butress the catastrophic warming to occur, most of the scientific research that occurs is political science.

The handbook is quite interesting. Now off to debunk the sole myth in the article, AGW iteslf.

So. In your own words let us see why you consider that the science that shows the earth is warming and why is only ‘political science’. Please provide scientific proof for your statements.

Perhaps you should read this:

Of course you will have to tell us what signs there are that the earth is not warming and also why our knowledge of the role of GHGs is so wrong.