Debunking Myths


Debunking Myths


Many of you will know that we at Safety Action work hard to provide the safety facts and professional explanations, not personal opinions.

A good friend recently sent us a copy of “The Debunking Handbook” by J. Cook and S. Lewandowsky (2011). Thank you Linda.

The manual opens with a caution that many efforts to correct misinformation often backfires. This is because they don’t follow the “debunking rules”.

A good example of this problem is the current media and scientific reports (and rebuttals) about climate change and global warming. Firstly, I should state I don’t know the answer, but this article is about the debunking techniques, not the answer to a difficult (if not impossible in the short term) global question.

Rule 1: Mud Sticks

The old saying is correct – mud does stick. If you make a statement well, strongly and often enough, then most people will tend to believe it is true. For example, electrical test and tag is a legal requirement for all workplaces, and safety shoes/boots is a legal requirement on all construction sites. Both of these are NOT true, yet most people have heard it so much they believe it must be true. Note: Both these things are eminently sensible in most workplaces, but the point is they are NOT prescribed by safety regulations for all workplaces, as many people think.

Rule 2: A Simple Myth is Preferred to a Complex Truth

 If you attempt to correct a popular (simple) misunderstanding with a long, complex or possibly unclear truth, then most people will likely get bored and not follow your logic, and therefore not agree with your rebuttal. 

Rule 3: Being Right is Not Good Enough!

How many times have you heard people say “they are all idiots, they don’t understand me”, or similar words? It is no longer sufficient even to be perfect; you need to communicate effectively with your stakeholders.

Rule 4: Don’t Mention the War

Avoid making the myth more memorable by repeatedly referring to it. When debunking a myth try to avoid mentioning the myth at all or obliquely in different language. Do not add to its familiarity e.g. “All dogs have four legs – My cat has four legs, therefore ….”.

Rule 5: Clarity of Images & Text

Many scientists forget we are all human and like; colour, simple images and short succinct sentences. Adding some colour, sub-headings and clear diagrams to support your view will help a lot of people to better understand your position.

Rule 6: Provide Alternate Explanation

When we hear something we build a mental model and if misinformation is involved, then debunking the myth will leave a gap in people’s minds. Therefore you need to fill any gaps with alternate explanations that the myth provided, not just prove the myth was wrong.

Rule 7: Provide Myth Warnings

Before any mention of a myth, provide clear text or visual cues to warn that the upcoming information is FALSE.

In summary the key steps to debunking a myth include:

  • Emphasise the facts, not the myth.
  • Provide explicit warnings before any reference to the myth.
  • Provide an alternate explanation - to fill any gaps created by removal of the myth.
  • Use graphics, colour and succinct text to support your argument.


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