The Burden of Proof

Debunking deceit is difficult business for many reasons: deceit and dishonesty is easier than thoughtful, substantive, truthful engagement. As Winston Churchill put it, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”

People simply don’t have the capacity (think time and luxury of deep consideration) to absorb detail counterpoints on issue after issue, day after day. Which means that Gish Galloping (“a debate spewed forth an endless torrent of talking points, rendering constructive debate impossible”) powerfully sways the ‘undecided’ and marginally informed as the talking points stick and detailed rebuttals sound weak, whining, and caught up in the details (rather than exuberantly thriving in 140-character Twitterdom climate-science denial like @RealDonaldTrump). And, people simply don’t want their misperceptions corrected — there is a natural resistance to inconvenient truth.

All this combines to mean that fact checkers operate with inherent disadvantage.

And compounding the problem further: most ‘debunkers’ seem not to have read Randy Olson’s Don’t be such a scientist: talking substance in an age of style and take a rather academic and intellectual approach to the process, much like what one might have been taught in an academic class back in grammar school, with a argument structure that can fail to capture audience and, even worse, can actually reinforce falsehoods in audience’s minds.

All of this combines, as per the opening sentence, to make debunking myths extremely difficult and highlight the importance of taking this very seriously, including learning from those that dedicate serious attention to the challenges and leverage their learning to foster more effective styles.

For those serious about getting better at debunking myths (around climate change or anything else), The Debunking Handbook is a very effective guide. A short, fully documented yet highly digestible paper with a real impact on how I think about and approach ‘debunking’ and refuting mythical arguments. There are five core elements:

  • Mud sticks: it is hard to change people’s mind and simply providing accurate and more information is not likely to dislodge myths.
  • Familiarity Backfire Effect: The more people hear something, the likelier that it ‘sticks’ with them.
  • Overkill Backfire Effect: More information and arguments are not always more effective.  Less often is more.
  • Worldview Backfire Effect: Sadly, when it comes to climate change (or evolution, etc) a simple reality is that there are unreachables that will not be convinced no matter how much energy you put into it and therefore “outreaches should be directed towards the undecided majority rather than the unswayable minority”.
  • Mind the Gap: The debunking effort creates a void (a gap in people’s mental model) and nature abhors a vacuum.  For effective debunking, “your debunking must fill that gap” with an alternative (truthful) explanation

With these in mind, here is an anatomy of an effective debunkingBringing all the different threads together, an effective debunking requires:

  • Core facts—a refutation should emphasize 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.

While important in providing ‘how to’ guidance, the Handbook also provides a window through which to consider debunking efforts.

Perhaps like debunking myths, The Debunking Handbook seems to face an uphill struggle.  People “know” how to debunk and remain locked into old patterns that might not be effective. There are many organizations and individuals across the climate (and broader science) communities who expend meaningful resources challenging various myths (and outright falsehoods) about climate science and potential mitigation paths forward.  All too often, these individuals and institutions do not follow debunking basic principles.

Among ‘debunking’ organizations, the Climate Reality Project is among the better known and funded. From Vice President Gore’s engagement, to the thousands of trained presenters around the world the Project takes on the challenge of confronting deniers and arming others to confront deniers across an extremely broad spectrum.

Regretfully, all too often, these efforts don’t pass The Debunking Handbook test.  Let’s take the second point, familiarity backfire.

Do you think that to debunk the myth requires mentioning it?  Oops, not necessarily.

And, more importantly, if you have to mention it make sure to do so within a context. “Your debunking should begin with the facts”, not emphasize (e.g., no bolding) the myth, and provide a context (an alternative explanation) of how the myth misleads.  In other words, sandwich myth with facts and a factual explanation of why a myth, subordinating the ‘myth’ itself into a minor role in the conversation.

With that in mind, let’s look at three different ways Climate Reality passed through my inbox.

First, from Twitter:

Myth: Climate change is a hoax. Fact: Climate change is already happening. Gobble Gobble

— Climate Reality (@ClimateReality) November 27, 2014

People read headlines and rarely click through on twitter. And, sadly, research shows that we remember ‘first words’.  Even though packaged as “myth”, a reasonable share of people if asked hours or days later will remember ‘hoax’ (if they remember anything). While probably best not to even mention “hoax”, better to structure it with “fact” first.

Next, the Project recently came out with a short 12 ‘skeptic’ questions every climate activist hears and what to say and substantive material to respond to them. Below is a screen shot of the entry page to the document. Take a look. The ‘questions’ are there, not the facts.  In the document itself, every page has a banner headline of the skeptic question with the substance appearing in smaller type and less emphasis beneath it. This is the opposite of how the information should be presented so that the facts stick in reader’s minds.

Finally, the Project has a Solar myths ebook addressing common falsehoods, mis-directions, and even honest confusion about solar power. The following, from a blog post on solar pricing, provides a fair example of the ebook’s structuring and approach.

Earlier this month, we told you why solar panels are a reliable source of energy, even when it’s cloudy or cold. Next up, we’re tackling another common myth: the economics of solar energy.


Fact: The price of solar energy has dropped significantly in the last seven years and many scientists predict it will continue to decrease.

Try stepping back and looking at this. What jumps out at you?

Bolding reinforces and is memorable. Thus, not only is the myth a leading wedge but it is emphasized in a reinforcing manner.

For the most part, the Climate Reality Project’s readers already know climate change is real and are concerned about it.  The majority of those seeing documents like the two cited above aren’t, themselves, debunking targets.  Yet, the documents will get shared. Tweets and Facebook pages are shared.

Fighting for sanity in climate policy is a far harder business than it should be, in no small part due to the dis- and mis-informers (along with the sheer complexity of the issue).  Working to push the needle — in public understanding, in policy support — is hard business.  And, part of that is striving for ever more effective communications — to get the biggest bang for the buck.

Simply put, absorbing and applying The Debunking Handbook when taking on myths and falsehoods is one way to do so.

A version of this post originally appeared on Get Energy Smart! Now!

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons. 


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