2012-02-23 15:50:20Article for ABC Environment: The Challenges and Opportunities in Climate Myth Busting
John Cook


ABC Environment asked me to submit something so I thought I'd kill two birds with one stone - promote next Tuesday's myth busting evening and highlight the lessons from the Debunking Handbook (which I learned this week is already being used in the curriculum of a psychology/philosophy college course). Am submitting this tomorrow morning so comments welcome:

The Challenges and Opportunities in Climate Myth Busting

Busting myths is not as easy as you’d think. Sure, the guys on Mythbusters make it look fun and entertaining while always finding a way to blow stuff up. The reality is significantly more complicated.

The first myth that needs busting is the conceit that the human mind is organised, logical and rational. It turns out our brains are more like that cave in Raiders of the Lost Ark, full of twists, turns and a lethal assortment of booby traps. When you set out to debunk a myth, you run into a number of psychological backfire effects that can actually reinforce the myth in people’s minds.

I first learned about these backfire effects when Stephan Lewandowsky, a professor from the University of Western Australia, emailed me a study that examined what happens when people read myth debunkings. Participants were tested of their knowledge of various vaccine myths. Next, they were shown a flyer refuting a number of the myths. Half an hour later, they were tested again. Surprisingly, some participants actually scored worse in the second test, having trouble distinguishing fact from myth. The debunking flyer had actually reinforced the myths in people’s minds. 

It’s a catch-22 situation. To debunk a myth, you have to mention it. But then you make people more familiar with the myth, increasing the likelihood of their accepting the myth as true. How do mythbusters circumnavigate this ‘Familiarity Backfire Effect’? The key is putting the emphasis on the facts you wish to communicate rather than the myth. 

But not too much emphasis. Another backfire occurs if your debunking is too detailed and difficult to process: the Overkill Backfire Effect. A study that had people generate 12 arguments to refute an idea ended up reinforcing it. However, generating only three arguments was successful in reducing the influence of the idea. The driving force at play is that a simple myth is more cognitively attractive than an overly complicated debunking. The old cliché is true: less is more.

However, the real gorilla in the room is the Worldview Backfire Effect. This occurs when you present evidence that threatens a person’s worldview or sense of identity, leading to them believing false beliefs stronger than ever. One way to minimise this effect is to present evidence in a way that is less threatening to one’s world view. For instance, when evidence for climate change was presented  along with a call for regulating carbon pollution, political conservatives became even more sceptical about global warming. However, when the same evidence was followed by a call to rejuvenate the nuclear industry, conservatives were more accepting of the science.

Let’s say you manage to avoid triggering the various backfire effects. Just when you think you’ve finally succeeded, like Indiana Jones reaching out for the golden idol, there’s one last pitfall. It’s not enough to merely remove the myth. When you debunk a myth, you leave a gap in the person’s understanding. That gap needs to be filled with an alternative explanation. This is a crucial element to a successful debunking – create a gap, fill the gap – that also presents an exciting opportunity.

In Chip and Dan Heath’s book Made To Stick, the authors explore how communicators can arouse people’s interest to create “sticky messages”. One approach they propose is “Gap Theory”, based on the fact that curiosity is stirred when we perceive a gap in our knowledge. We’ve all experienced this – who hasn’t sat through a bad movie just to find out how it ends? I watched Lost for several seasons more than I should have for this very reason. To communicate in a compelling, engaging fashion, you need to highlight gaps in people’s knowledge, provoke their curiosity then fill the gaps.

Sound familiar? The structure required to debunk a myth – create a gap, fill the gap – is also the key to compelling, engaging communication. Debunking myths doesn’t need to be considered a necessary evil. It’s an opportunity to use the response to misinformation as a teachable moment.

Next Tuesday night (Feb 28), I’ve been asked to present a climate myth busting evening at Lane Cove on the Sydney North Shore. However, instead of giving a prepared talk with a slideshow, the organisers plan to break the audience up into groups who will select the most persuasive climate myths they’ve heard. I will then attempt to debunk the myths. To add a little edge to the evening, the audience will vote to determine whether the myths have been busted or not.

It feels a bit like going back to school and sitting exams. I don’t know what questions will be asked and I’ll be graded afterwards. Except this time, the examination and grading will occur in front of an audience. The grading is not just a matter of knowing the science but also successfully negotiating the psychological pitfalls and backfire effects. The evening could be a highly engaging, interactive and educational experience. Or it might be a train wreck. Either way, bring popcorn!

2012-02-23 16:32:21
Dana Nuccitelli

I'd mention the name of the overkill backfire effect.  I think the name is pretty descriptive and a good communications tool itself.  Suggested additions in red:

Another backfire effect occurs if your debunking is too detailed and difficult to process: the overkill backfire effect.

The old cliché is true: less is more.  Keep it simple, stupid or The less you say, the more the audience absorbs.

Lost => italics (maybe specify "the television series Lost").

Very nice article though.  I like the Indiana Jones references :-)  Let us know if/when it's published.