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Why debunking so often fails

by Eric Ferguson on December 22, 2011

Earlier today, dan.burns posted a diary about Republican legislative leaders, presumably Speaker Kurt Zellers, firing the director of the LCCMR (Legislative-Citizens Commission on Minnesota Resources), apparently because an environmental commission is too, well, environmental. Anything related to global warming seems to particularly problematic for them, and their science denial has been remarkably resistant to debunking.

The proprietors of my favorite global warming site, Skeptical Science, have written a guide to debunking giving away their techniques. Their examples are mostly about global warming, but the technique is general. If you ever try to explain why some piece of nonsense is indeed nonsense, consider this required reading.

For example:

To test for this backfire effect, people were shown a flyer that debunked common myths about flu vaccines.5 Afterwards, they were asked to separate the myths from the facts. When asked immediately after reading the flyer, people successfully identified the myths. However, when queried 30 minutes after reading the flyer, some people actually scored worse after reading the flyer. The debunking reinforced the myths.

And this:

Another way in which information can be made more acceptable is by “framing” it in a way that is less threatening to a person’s worldview. For example, Republicans are far more likely to accept an otherwise identical charge as a “carbon offset” than as a “tax”, whereas the wording has little effect on Democrats or Independents-because their values are not challenged by the word tax”.14

As a summary:

Anatomy of an effective debunking

Bringing all the different threads together, an effective debunking requires:
• Core facts-a refutation should emphasise the facts, not the myth. Present only key facts to avoid an Overkill Backfire Effect;
• Explicit warnings-before any mention of a myth, text or visual cues should warn that the upcoming information is false;
• Alternative explanation-any gaps left by the debunking need to be filled. This may be achieved by providing an alternative causal explanation for why the myth is wrong and, optionally, why the misinformers promoted the myth in the first place;
• Graphics – core facts should be displayed graphically if possible.

I ran across a prime myth to debunk. On Sunday, Mitt Romney repeated a false claim about the invasion of Iraq, that the Iraqi government refused to allow weapons inspectors, so we didn’t know they didn’t have WMDs.

I just applied one of the debunking methods by making sure readers were expecting a statement to be false before giving the false statement. More typically, and I’ve known this for a while so it’s painful when I see it, the myth is introduced by something like a headline that says, maybe in large bold text, “Myth: Saddam refused to allow weapons inspectors”. Readers remember seeing something about Iraq and weapons inspectors, but forget what they heard about it, so the myth can actually be reinforced. You’d think the supposedly Serious GOP candidate would be expected to know this, though I expect he did what most people do, hear the facts and forget them.

Instead of the headline restating the myth, it’s better to have a headline restating the fact, something like,
Iraq cooperated with weapons inspectors

Then explain the fact, but avoid giving excessive information, because that creates confusion and causes readers to ignore everything except the main idea, which might be the myth we’re trying to debunk. Instead of giving everything I can find on weapons inspections, I’ll say, “Weapons inspectors said in their progress reports before the invasion that Iraq was cooperating with them. They didn’t say cooperation was perfect, but it was good and getting better.” Then a link to the report, for those who can or want to absorb more facts, which in this case is here.

Then I lead in to the myth in a way to make the readers understand that what follows is false, which is the bit above, “Mitt Romney repeated a false claim about the invasion of Iraq…” For a liberal audience, I might even mention he said this on Fox News, because that’s a cue it’s false. For conservatives however, that’s a cue it’s true, and for a non-political audience, it’s meaningless information. Only after the set up do I repeat the false claim about Iraq keeping out inspectors.

Then I show something to show the claim is false, like quoting from the IAEA link above, or preferably something graphical, which is better remembered. I don’t have a graph, so here’s a quote:

I should note that, in the past three weeks, possibly as a result of ever-increasing pressure by the international community, Iraq has been forthcoming in its co-operation, particularly with regard to the conduct of private interviews and in making available evidence that could contribute to the resolution of matters of IAEA concern. I do hope that Iraq will continue to expand the scope and accelerate the pace of its co-operation.

I don’t want to do a big information dump, so that’s why I don’t try to refute everything Romney said, which I noticed Think Progress didn’t try to do, which I suspect was the application of the same technique. Romney also said other intelligence agencies agreed with ours. I could go dig up sources to show some didn’t agree, and the agreeing agencies got their information from the Bush administration. I would choose not to go into that, because it’s a separate point that needs its own debunking. I would have to fight the tendency to info-dump because I could probably go into this government thought this, that government thought that, and on and on. By the time the reader gets through all that, they might not even remember the the debunking was about the weapons inspectors claim.

So my intention would be to first get across the correct information in way it will be remembered, that Iraq cooperated with inspectors, because succeeding at that makes it possible to beat back the bigger myth this smaller myth supports, the myth that was Romney’s point, that no one knew before the invasion Iraq had no WMD. On a higher level, since Romney is a political opponent, I want to make it clear Romney is saying something factually false. I don’t give a conclusion that he’s lying or honestly doesn’t know enough to be president, because I don’t know. I don’t need to know, because both of those are bad for Romney. I also don’t need to give the implication to a reader hanging out on a liberal blog, but to another audience, I might conclude by explicitly saying that if he is wrong about something so basic, doesn’t it indicate he shouldn’t be too dishonest or too ignorant to be president?

I recommend reading the entire guide, which is just nine pages including title page and footnotes, because any of us hanging out here probably debunks something at some point. It’s very easy to waste our time, and even reinforce the myth we want to break.

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