John Cook – The Debunking Handbook

December 19, 2011

How do you successfully debunk misinformation?

The question is a deceptively simple one—which is precisely the problem.

Debunking is easy—just refute false claims, and provide corrective information.

Debunking successfully is something else again-you have to change minds, and make the corrective information stick. And how does that work?

Well, as it turns out, we actually don’t know very much about the process. But what we do know was recently compiled into a brilliant short document, the Debunking Handbook, available free for download from the website Skeptical Science.

Point of Inquiry recently caught up with one of its authors, John Cook, in San Francisco at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union.

John Cook is the Climate Communication Fellow for the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland in Australia. He studied physics, and maintains the popular global warming website “Skeptical Science,” which refutes misinformation by explaining, in user friendly fashion, the findings of the peer reviewed literature.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Monday, December 19th, 2011. Welcome the point of inquiry. 

I’m Chris Mooney point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values and public affairs and the grassroots. 

How do you successfully debunk misinformation? The question is a deceptively simple one, which is precisely the problem. Debunking is easy, just refute false claims and provide corrective information. Debunking successfully is something else again. You have to change minds. You have to make the corrective information stick. You have to make it persist. You have to make it more appealing than the original misinformation. How does that work? How do you do it? As it turns out, we don’t really know very much about this process as it plays out in human minds. But what we do know was recently compiled into a brilliant short document entitled The Debunking Handbook, which is available free for download from the Web site. Skeptical Science. So I wanted to have on one of its authors, John Cooke, to explain what science is showing about how to successfully refute misinformation. John Cooke is the climate communication fellow for the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland in Australia. He studied physics and he maintains the popular global warming Web site. Skeptical science, which refutes misinformation by explaining and user friendly fashion. The findings of the peer reviewed literature. I recently caught up with Cooke in San Francisco, where we were both attending the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union. 

John Cook, welcome to a point of inquiry. 

Hi, Chris. Thanks for having me. It’s really great to have you in. 

You’ve been doing wonderful work. It’s skeptical science for some time, debunking myths, misinformation about global warming, setting the record straight. Tell me, you know, how many people are now actually tuning in for all the all the Dagong things that you do? 

Well, the Web site gets about half a million visits per month. So, yeah, it’s it’s kind of, um, it’s been building up over the last five years. 

Seems like it reaches a lot of people. I’ve been finding it more and more. Now, you’ve done this book booklet. It’s short. The debunking handbook, which is just really seems to have gone viral. And you told me that that’s just getting getting mega downloads. 

Yeah, we released that just over a week ago. And it’s been downloaded two hundred ninety thousand times so far. 

That’s more books than other results. How did you win? Clearly over the course of having the site. You’ve learned some lessons about debunking what works, what doesn’t. I mean, you must have been of a developmental process, right? What would what did you figure out? 

Well, I mean, when I started out, I was I was operating under the information deficit. So my assumption was if if people are being misled by misinformation, then it’s just a matter of giving them evidence. And if that’s not enough, just give them more evidence. But then I got an e-mail from Steve Lewandowsky from the University of Western Australia, and he sent me this paper by I think it was by Norbert Schwarz where he said they didn’t experiment into how. What happens when you debunk misinformation? And they found that in some cases in if depending on the top of debunking it, actually reinforced the myth and caused the backfire effect. So this was this rocked me to my core when I read this paper because I thought, am I reinforcing the limits? Am I making things worse? 

So at that point, I decided I better read as much of this this research into misinformation as possible before that or after that, if I could ask what has been what has been a really successful debunk or correction that you’ve done that? And why did it work? 

I’d say the number one argument for a while on on because we keep track of how many times skeptic arguments pop up online. And the most the most common one for a while was blaming global warming on the sun. So so we we I started off by debunking about just listing what all the peer reviewed science said. And it was just paper after paper, almost one a year for the last decade and a half, just investigating it and finding that there wasn’t an effect. But then as the data, as measurements came in, the solid honor and the temperature data, and you could just see them going in opposite directions and just sharing that that graph of of the the divergence was I think that had a big effect in in reducing the the sun argument. And then climate change is change. The climate has changed before in the past that. That I would look at is the number one argument over the last few months. 

It’s interesting that you mentioned the graph because one of the things that you say in this handbook, you emphasize the importance of pictures, images to convince people, not just words, not just citations. 

Yeah, I think that was Brendan Nyhan. He did that research where he showed and I think he showed Republicans a graph about the global warming trend. And he also showed them some text just describing how was the hottest decade and describing the woman, the warming trend. And the graph was was significantly more effective in debunking the global cooling myth. So it does show that graphs are just a lot more, I guess, visual, concrete. And I think that when he discusses the cognitive price, like just the way people think when when people read text, they’re able to. They are able to see more ambiguities in the text. And I guess it’s more open to interpretation. But a graph is what you see is what you get. And so it’s a lot harder to squirm away from the truth. 

I think that that makes a lot of sense based on the way I think about how people think. But what it also means is that there are probably some people out there. It’s getting to be a more and more rarified bunch as you start to give them charts and graphs who actually might be able to figure out some way to debunk graph, but to see they’d have to really, really they’d have to change the axes. They’d have to they’d have to be very technically competent. But at some point, you would probably even have given on the issue being so politicized, he’d probably have some people who would still take it on. What do you think you do? Do you encounter them to. 

One of the funniest skeptic myths I’ve seen is there was a spoof blog where they took a graph and they rotate that to to make it look like to display the warming trend. And that was funny. And then there’s an actual real skeptic who Neal’s actual morning who actually did that with sea level rise to argue that sea, the sea level isn’t rising. So it’s it’s like life imitating art. 

This actually does. So, you know, again, this handbook is is, I think, a wonderful piece of work. 

And I’ve written that already. I want to get into what it says and a little bit more detail. And I know that all of our listeners will go and download it and they’ll be able to do it from our Web site. But you talk about you break it down into three backfires because what you’re trying to prevent is people from debunking a myth and doing so in such a way that doesn’t have the desired outcome. In fact, that might have the opposite of the desired outcome. It may Rin’s reinforce the myth. So let’s let’s talk through the backfires. And you’ve already talked a little bit about what the first one is, what you call familiarity. The familiarity backfire. 

Yes. So the driving force behind the familiarity backfire effect is that the more familiar you you are with some information, the more likely you are to accept it is true. So so the cut. So the consequence, if you’re debunking a myth, is you don’t want people just to come away remembering the myth. You want to put all the emphasis on the facts rather than the myth. And so often you see these bankings where it has the myth, a big headline at the top of the page and the big bold letters. And that’s really the last thing you want to do. So. So and that’s how we started skeptical science. We had the myth as the big headline Tom Flynn. Oh, there’s always rules. OK, we we broke all of them. So say what you want to do is have like identify what the core facts are. And use that as the headline. Start your debunking, talking about the facts and end with the facts. That’s what people come away with. 

So let’s let’s do an example. Let’s take this on in global warming. You what you don’t want to do is what I’m about to do, which is to say, you know, myth global warming is just caused by variability in the sun. 

And you do want to say instead what you would say over the last 30 years of global warming, sun and climate have been going in opposite directions. 

Doesn’t that still of raise the idea that, hey, there’s something with the sword? 

Well, I guess I’m. Well, what it says is that if the son does have a big effect on climate and the evidence indicates it’s not that big an effect. But even if it does, then the sun would actually be cooling the earth’s climate right now and it would be having what we think is it’s having a slight cooling effect. 

So maybe you should say the sun is probably cooling the Earth’s climate right now. We’ll have to think about how to tweak it more. 

I’m playing with a little bit, but I know I think I get the point. I think our listeners will get the point. The next one is overkill. 

The overkill backfire. 

Yes. And this was actually in the same paper by Norbert Schwartz as the familiarity backfire effect. And he also did another experiment where he he played around with how many arguments in the debunking were were shown to the participants. And he found that if you just gave three arguments to the bank, the argument, then it was successful in reducing the influence of the misinformation so that the banking worked. But when he gave twelve arguments, it actually reinforced the myth. So you would think giving more information should should be more effective. But what it actually did was was backfire. And the reason why is because I think Steve Lewandowsky summed it up in one line, which I really like. So I made it the highlight box on that page, which was what is a simple myth, is more cognitively attractive than an overcomplicated correction. So if if reading the debarking, it’s just too much hard work, then people will maybe not consciously, but they’ll cognitively be attracted more to just the simple myth. And the challenge there is that often the debarking requires explanation of complicated science, nuanced answers, whereas a myth can be just something, just throwing out some some false information in a catchy soundbite. So that’s a big challenge for communicating. 

So what this means is that when, you know, this is terrible news for experts, I mean, when you know a lot about a subject and then somebody waltzes into your area of expertize and irresponsibly attacks it and gets it all wrong. 

Your impulse as an expert is going to be, I’m going to demolish this. You know what I’m going to show it’s wrong. This way, that way and the other way. And the idea that doing that may actually reinforce it just by just by the amount of ammunition that you can bring to bear, I think is very is very troubling. 

Is it just because. People, it’s because people are put off by too much information. Or is it because just going over the arguments that the counter arguments again and again still opens the mind to the wrong idea? 

That’s a good question. I think it’s I think it was it was more the former, which is just that it’s it’s more work to suppress it. But there are several ways of thinking about how people retrieve memories and different models on how the brain works. And so, yeah, there might be an element of truth offhand that often they talk about these two models and as if it’s one or the other. And I wonder whether it’s a bit of bias. It could be a bit of both and what you say. 

And then the biggest one, I mean, I, I don’t know if you’d agree with me. It sounds like this is the biggest one. The biggest one is is world view backfire. And that is that, you know, people have deeply held beliefs. Right. And so if you attack those deeply held beliefs, they leap to their defense rather than, oh, I’ll just stop being religious. Thanks for telling me that. That’s right. 

Because like any issue that that advertising with someone’s world view or with their sense of identity and often the two are very linked, if you present evidence that threatens their identity, then then automatically they’ll they’ll just retrieve any arguments or evidence that that backs up. They will view and suppresses the evidence that you present to them. So that has an effective bolstering their their false beliefs. 

So this is surely the hardest one to get around. What do you advise doing to get around this? Because to some extent you’ll never get around this one. I mean, it depends on what you do, but some people are so entrenched and so fired up, they’re the hardest to persuade of any human being, you know, that class of people. 

I think this is the area probably of that needs the most research. And there has been a few that have just touched on the edges of it. So there was one technique involving self affirmation, because if this is all about sense of identity and if you are threatening their identity, then what the self affirmation technique does is you get someone thinking about some other area of their lives, a skill that I have or or some something that makes them feel good about themselves, essentially. And if you get them doing that, then they’re more open to other evidence that is threatening to their worldview. So that’s one approach. But people ask, well, how do you do that in real life? And that’s there is that’s a real area that needs to be explored. How do you make that practical? I’m not sure. I have a few theories that I might test that, but I haven’t thought about that. Well, I. I have like like I’m a Christian, so I would like to talk to Christian groups about climate change. And I think that a lot of Christians are naturally skeptical about climate change. We’re not natural. I think that there’s various reasons. But I think to talk about Christian values that aren’t to do with climate change and about issues of justice and mercy, and those are the reasons why we should also care about climate change. I think maybe providing self affirmation in those domains might might open them up to listening to the evidence. And there’s a phrase you used which I actually borrowed for the handbook. Sorry about that. But I’m about giving the facts a fighting chance. And I think that might do that. But it’s just kind of a half theory. 

Yeah, well, of course, if I can just be kind of mean for second, the people who need self affirmation in order not to be defensive, it suggests that they’re clinging to their beliefs because they might not have enough self-esteem. I don’t know what we do for them anyway. You know, it’s interesting that you mentioned that you’re a Christian, and yet Richard Dawkins is one reason you had so much traffic directed to the that the debunking handbook. Right. I mean, he sent tons of traffic your way. 

Yeah, well, yeah, that’s right. But I bet a lot of his views on creation and evolution. I agree with that. But I don’t I don’t agree necessarily with his approach, which is not the right approach. If you want to to convince Christians of evolution, how do you know how do you judge wanted the bonking or correction has succeeded? 

Well, if the person’s changed their mind, I guess. 

But on a personal. Personal level. Right. I guess. Sure. On a personal personal level, I guess is easier. But when you when you blog something, when you blog something and you send it out into the world, you know, that’s a good question. 

And we haven’t really set up any systems to measure that yet. And that’s something I’d hope to do over the next year, is use the Web site to to test the banking’s like that has all the research I’ve been reading looks at different structures and different ways of approaching refutation. 

But but I think I think I further in in really examining different styles and different communication techniques. Yeah. That’s something I’m keen to do on. 

Argument, it’s not that deep of a counter argument, but it is. It is, I think has something to it is that this just this word debunking is so negative. I mean, the idea that that is the way one describes the activity that one is engaging in is itself kind of puts you at a bit of a disadvantage because some of it is, oh, oh, here comes a debunker. I’m going to walk the other way. 

Well, I think that I’m. And this comes from like that familiarity backfire effect where you put the emphasis on the facts. I think you don’t have to approach it in a combative way, but it can be you can you can even debunk mates without even mentioning the it’s just by positively presenting the evidence. And so when I write this is another book, but we did a year ago, the scientific guide to Global Warming Skepticism. And that was written in a very positive manner, just talking about the evidence in a positive way and through the through the presenting of the evidence. We we touched on myths along the way. But it wasn’t you know, he’s the myth that’s let’s kick it back and was more here, the facts. And this is why we were convinced about climate change. 

Do you see? 

Well, I think you have global warming myths or misinformation shifting over time. Do they change their spots? What what causes that to occur? 

I thought that there would be a shift. I thought there would be an evolution or a gradual moving away from. It’s not warming to. It’s not asked. 

It’s not bad. But I was wrong. I’ve been surprised to find that people are denying the fact of just like they still in that global cooling argument just as much today as they were several years ago. So that’s a little bit discouraging. When I started skeptical science, I thought I’d be obsolete by now. So that was worth calling history, I think. But. But so, yeah, I guess it’s kind of testimony to, I guess, the human brains, the ability to to deny evidence that they don’t want to see. 

Yeah, well, I know. I think that if I can just trace it a little bit, I mean, I’ve been following this issue since 2003 maybe. And there was a time when, you know, around 2005, 2007, we felt like Al Gore had come out with Inconvenient Truth. And, you know, we had him running some. So to. And the idea was, oh, come on, people can’t cling to this for much longer. But that turned out to be wrong because political winds shift, they get more momentum. And it isn’t really about the truth. It’s really about where you are in terms of how successful you’re being and how much momentum you feel it. And when they got more momentum. 

Willing to say all kinds of things again. 

And as you get closer to real action and legislation, it just intensifies. So we’ve seen that in Australia as we’ve got closer to putting in a price on carbon. And we just passed a law a few months ago that their opposition to it just went off the scales. 

Let me ask you that. Australia actually a wonderful country. I’m glad that I’ve been there several times. There was a recent study. 

It was by a guy named James Painter, and he is at the Reuters Institute at Oxford University and he studies the media. And he looked at global warming skepticism in six countries, their newspapers. And what he found was that it was a, quote, Anglo-Saxon phenomenon. In other words, it was the U.S. and the U.K. that he looked at that had lots of it in their papers. But then he looked at France, Brazil, China and India and found very little. And Brazil had the least. And I was like, you know, go Brazil. Not only are they good at soccer, but they’re also they’re also good at covering science. 

But whereas Australia fit, is it following the Anglo Saxon trend? 

Yes, it is. And like we have the national newspaper, The Australian. And they’ve they’ve published a long history in public publishing, anti science and anti climate change articles. They had a cover article once saying sea levels aren’t rising and they’re evidence for it was an old guy in in Tug’s saying he hadn’t seen any sea level rise over the last few decades. So this is the kind of kind of mainstream media attention that issue gets in Australia. And we and we have a number of homegrown skeptics to like, very outspoken ones like in climate. Bob Katter. And and so, yeah, there’s we have our problems as well. 

Why are these three countries trending this way together? Do you have any thoughts about that? And the rest of the world is not. I mean, it’s it’s an oddity. I don’t have a deep explanation for it. I mean, this other than maybe the language. I mean, you know, and some cultural heritage. But to see the U.S., U.K. and Australia as being the three places where there’s the most global warming skepticism. It seems like there would have to be an explanation for that, wouldn’t there? 

Yeah. I don’t know. I haven’t read Painter’s paper yet. Does he? I don’t know if he looks at the causes, but I mean, I. My thoughts, I’d guess that it might be connected to media in some way. And maybe there’s a Murdoch link there. But but yeah, it would be interesting to unpack that. 

I’m just thinking I’m just thinking to myself. Yeah, I think that that is a very, very interesting trend. What it suggests is that these countries are although they’re different. Well, I mean, I think that the United States has the most of it. I mean, I don’t. 

Do you feel that the situation in America is more dire than in Australia at the moment? I think mainly because in Australia it’s actually politically incorrect for politicians to deny the science. So even though Tony Abbott has made a lot of skeptic noises in the past, now he he will accept the science even though he doesn’t want to act on it. What? Whereas in science here in Australia, we’re seeing politicians who don’t believe in the science will publicly accept it. Whereas in America, what’s happening now is politicians who do believe in the science are publicly denying it. It’s become so on the nose for Republicans to accept science that they just have publicly have to refuse. And even Jon Huntsman has done it recently. 

So given the success of this handbook, what is what is the next step? 

You know, what are you willing to do to take this forward, to actually make refutations work? What’s comes. 

There’s a couple of things we’re doing next. One is that the debarking handbook is I guess it’s the first step. And and we’re also at the same time working on a much more thorough academic review of all the literature. So this this handbook was designed just to be very short and practical and just just not to be too long, but give people just here’s what you do. Here’s the tips and just give them enough of the theory to understand it. But we were writing a much longer paper that just goes through all the all the literature. And what I also like to do is just do some more research into it. Like you said before, measuring the how effective deep rankings are and and compare different tops of the rankings and different structures to see what are the most effective ways. And just just take the research a bit further. 

Well, I think ultimately, if I could speculate here, you’re going on. Scientific studies, which are psychology studies. I take it where you have a controlled situation, where you show people information in different ways and you see how they respond. I can’t imagine. And again, I’m speculating a little, but I can’t imagine that there isn’t. 

There are enough of those studies that really capture all of the different things that happen when people encounter information in a global warming debate. I mean, there’s, you know, you know, online off friend says something. I mean, it seems like there’s probably more research that has to be done as well. What do you think? 

Oh, there’s a there’s a lot more to be done. And there’s like what I’m hoping to do is do do the kind of analysis where you also capture a lot of demographic data. And and so you can just see what all the various influences, how does ideology come into it and politics. And I initially I’m interested in the cognitive processes from from different structural different structures. But then also there’s Martin. And also I could track it over time. So to see whether like like according to the theory, what you should see is people in the middle should become more convinced of the science. But people who are already skeptics should become even more skeptic. 

And you should see a divergence so that seeing whether that actually comes comes out in the data is another interesting question. 

What do. Have you ever heard anything from skeptics themselves about this approach? I mean, do they think that, ironically, this approach should work on somebody like you? 

Yeah, there has been a few people who’ve suggested that I actually those when I got to our site, we have a lot of regular users and one of them who’s often arguing the skeptic case said, Ah, think Jung and I’m going to use these methods in my own arguments, say, with the very same time as it work. Well, I’ve never heard anything from you since, but I’ll be keeping an eye on what he what he’s come say. 

Well, John, this has been a good conversation. I guess I want to ask you, you know, in conclusion, how does this. You know, coming across this research, getting it out there in a big way, how does it make you feel about the goal? 

I mean, the goal is to make people a little less confused. And some people who, you know, really are not just confused, but sort of willfully. So a little less muddle headed. So do you feel. Because let me just say a little more. We’re learning about all this cognitive research now because we’ve been hitting our heads against the wall because we haven’t been able to change people’s minds. This. We’re learning how difficult that is. So now is all this science. Now we’re going to like learn how the mind works and then we hope it’ll get better. But I don’t know what I mean. 

Are you. Are you convinced that it will? I mean, do you think that this is the road? Because it might turn out to be that this there’s media factors that we can’t control. There’s too much information out there. We might be able to get someone to pay attention one on one sometimes. But you know, all the different influences in their lives. It may not be able to make a population scale difference. 

Well, I mean, you could never convince everyone and we don’t need to anyway. You don’t need to have 100 percent convincing. So I think if it’s if every time we learn a little bit more about how the mind works and we’ve just become a bit more effective and and peel off a percent here and a percent there, and then that just it’s just a gradual, you know, stepping towards that final goal and getting that tipping point where we get climate action. 

Well, that’s a great answer. And John Shook, I want to thank you for being on point of inquiry. 

Thanks, Chris. I’ve always enjoyed the podcast. It’s a pleasure to be on. 

I want to thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to get involved in a discussion about this show. Please visit our online forums by going to center for inquiry, dot net slash forums and then clicking on point of inquiry. The views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor if its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on this show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Adam Isaac in Amherst, New York. And our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael. This show also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard. I’m your host, Chris Mooney. 

Chris Mooney