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The Art and Science of Debunking

"Filling the gap with an alternative explanation." - illustration from The Debunking Handbook.

I believe communicators, educators and scientists all have a responsibility to correct misinformation and debunk myths. That's why I think we need to be active in the spaces, like social media, where myths and misinformation spread. However, our efforts may be backfiring.

Ever since I came across research that showed counter-arguments, however factual, could actually strengthen a myth in the mind of someone with a strongly held worldview, I've been torn between my desire to correct misinformation and my fear that in doing so I may be doing more harm than good.

That's why I was really excited to find "The Debunking Handbook". It's a nine-page, freely downloadable book that summarizes the psychological research on misinformation and offers practical suggestions for how to best correct misinformation and reduce the influence of myths.

Here are some highlights that I think are especially insightful.

  • We can't reduce the influence of a myth by packing more information into people's heads. "It's not just what people think that matters, but how they think."
  • Mentioning a myth without explicitly pointing out it is false, especially in a headline, can backfire by making the myth more familiar to people. If possible, it's better to focus on the facts, without mentioning the myth at all.
  • "A simple myth is more cognitively attractive than an over-complicated correction."
  • "When you debunk a myth, you create a gap in the person's mind. To be effective, your debunking must fill that gap."

I hope you'll download "The Debunking Handbook" and use its strategies. It's given me confidence that I can correct misinformation without unintentionally reinforcing it in people's minds.

Bob Bertsch, Web Technology Specialist, (701) 231-7381

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