Debunking the rst myth about debunking
It’s self-evident that democratic societies shouldbase their decisions on accurate information. Onmany issues, however, misinformation can becomeentrenched in parts of the community, particularlywhen vested interests are involved.
the inuence of misinformation is a difcult and
complex challenge. A common misconception about myths is the
notion that removing its inuence is as simple as
packing more information into people’s heads. Thisapproach assumes that public misperceptions aredue to a lack of knowledge and that the solutionis more information - in sciencecommunication, it’s known as the
“information decit model”. But
that model is wrong: people don’tprocess information as simply as ahard drive downloading data.Refuting misinformation involvesdealing with complex cognitiveprocesses. To successfully impartknowledge, communicators needto understand how people processinformation, how they modifytheir existing knowledge and howworldviews affect their ability tothink rationally. It’s not just whatpeople think that matters, but how they think.First, let’s be clear about what we mean by the
label “misinformation” - we use it to refer to any
information that people have acquired that turnsout to be incorrect, irrespective of why and how
that information was acquired in the rst place.
We are concerned with the cognitive processesthat govern how people process corrections to
information they have already acquired - if you nd
out that something you believe is wrong, how doyou update your knowledge and memory?Once people receive misinformation, it’s
quite difcult to remove its inuence. This was
demonstrated in a 1994 experiment where people
were exposed to misinformation about a ctitiouswarehouse re, then given a correction clarifying
the parts of the story that were incorrect.
Despiteremembering and accepting the correction, peoplestill showed a lingering effect, referring to themisinformation when answering questions aboutthe story.
Is it possible to completely eliminate the inuence
of misinformation? The evidence indicates that nomatter how vigorously and repeatedlywe correct the misinformation, for example by repeating the correction
over and over again, the inuence
The old sayinggot it right - mud sticks.There is also an added complication.
Not only is misinformation difcult
to remove, debunking a myth canactually strengthen it in people’s
minds. Several different “backreeffects” have been observed, arising
from making myths more familiar,
from providing too many arguments,
or from providing evidence thatthreatens one’s worldview.
The last thing you want to do when debunkingmisinformation is blunder in and make matters
worse. So this handbook has a specic focus
- providing practical tips to effectively debunk
misinformation and avoid the various backre
effects. To achieve this, an understanding of therelevant cognitive processes is necessary. Weexplain some of the interesting psychological
research in this area and nish with an example of
an effective rebuttal of a common myth.
It’s not just
peoplethink thatmatters, but
Debunking myths is problematic. Unless great care is taken, any effort to debunkmisinformation can inadvertently reinforce the very myths one seeks to correct. To
avoid these “backre effects”, an effective debunking requires three major elements.
First, the refutation must focus on core facts rather than the myth to avoid themisinformation becoming more familiar. Second, any mention of a myth should bepreceded by explicit warnings to notify the reader that the upcoming information isfalse. Finally, the refutation should include an alternative explanation that accountsfor important qualities in the original misinformation.1