Skeptical Science’s ‘Debunking Handbook’: Free PDF Download Goes Viral

A plain-spoken simple-language eight-page booklet has gone viral online as a free download on ways to debunk ‘myths’.


You won’t find it on any best-sellers list. Not even on Amazon.com.

But a tight little eight-page handbook, “The Debunking Handbook,” by skepticalscience.com editor John Cook of Brisbane and University of Western Australia psychology professor Stephan Lewandowsky, available free online, appears to have gone viral.

The booklet “explores the surprising fact that debunking myths can sometimes reinforce the myth in peoples’ minds,” the authors write in promoting its availability as a PDF download. While not limited to issues related to climate change, the authors draw many examples from that field, where Cook and his skepticalscience.com website have somewhat perfected the art of debunking what they see as climate “myths” popularized by died-in-the-wool science skeptics.

“The last thing you want to do when debunking information is blunder in and make matters worse,” the plain-speaking authors write. They caution, for instance, that once people receive “misinformation,” dislodging it and its lasting influence can be difficult.

“Not only is misinformation difficult to remove, debunking a myth can actually strengthen it in people’s minds,” they caution, pointing to ample evidence from cognitive science experts.

Writing of what they call the “backfire effect,” for instance, they advise trying to avoid mentioning the “myth” entirely and focusing instead on “the facts you wish to communicate.” At the very least, they emphasize starting with and emphasizing “the facts” and not starting by restating the myth to be debunked.

They caution too to “keep your content lean, mean, and easy to read … using every tool available … simple language, short sentences, subheadings and paragraphs.” And, of course, graphics and illustrations when possible. Less can be more, they advise, and three convincing points can be more effective than a dozen that might only add to confusion. “Too much information can backfire. Adhere instead to the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid!”

“Give the facts a fighting chance,” they urge.

Addressing several audiences at the American Geophysical Union’s annual fall meeting in early December in San Francisco, Cook, making his first visit to North America, told audiences the booklet had been downloaded more than 280,000 times in just its first two weeks online.

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