A debunking handbook provides lessons in science communication

By Ken Perrott 04/12/2011

Here’s a great new booklet that everyone interested in science communication should read – especially science bloggers. It’s the The Debunking Handbook by  John Cook, Global Change Institute, University of Queensland and Stephan Lewandowsky, School of Psychology, University of Western Australia.

While the booklet is aimed primarily at advising the best way to counter science denial and distortions the advise can be applied to any popular science communication. What’s more, the booklet itself is an example of excellent communication principles. It’s compact (only 8 pages), its message is upfront, its easy to understand and it’s illustrated.

Chris Mooney, who is an American science communicator, is also raving about the booklet. Here’s how he summarises the main messages:

“1. Don’t lead with the wrong view you’re trying to debunk, but rather, with the correct view you want to instill.

2. Don’t overload people with information. Be ’lean, mean, and easy to read.’

3. Don’t attack worldviews–either find more persuadable audiences, or defuse deeply seated ideological resistance through practices like framing and self-affirmation, which reduce defensiveness. ’Self affirmation and framing aren’t about manipulating people,’ write Cook and Lewandowsky, ’They give the facts a fighting chance.’

4. Don’t leave someone with nothing to believe–if you want to unseat a myth, you’d better provide a better real explanation in its place. ’When you debunk a myth, you create a gap in the person’s mind,’ reads the Handbook. ’To be effective, your debunking must fill the gap.’

On top of these key points, there are a variety of more practical bits of advice like:

1. Use graphics to convey correct information. Especially graphics as good as the ones that Cook and Lewandowsky use.

2. Use sound bites. Your bottom line needs to be Tweet-able.

3. Sometimes, it is better to reduce the credibility of a source than to frontally attack its wrong claims.”

I recommend you download the booklet, read it and keep it on your desk. Especially if you blog about science, or do a lot of popular science communicating in your day job.

Thanks to Chris Mooney: The Science of Debiasing: The New ’Debunking Handbook’ Is a Treasure Trove For Defenders of Reason.

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