The Debunking Handbook Part 1: The first myth about debunking

By John Cook
Posted on 16 November 2011
Filed under Cognition
and Stephan Lewandowsky
Professor, School of Experimental Psychology and Cabot Institute, University of Bristol

The Debunking Handbook is an upcoming guide to debunking myths, by John Cook and Stephan Lewandowsky. Although there is a great deal of psychological research on misinformation, unfortunately there is no summary of the literature that offers practical guidelines on the most effective ways of reducing the influence of misinformation. This Handbook boils down the research into a short, simple summary, intended as a guide for communicators in all areas (not just climate) who encounter misinformation. The Handbook will be available as a free, downloadable PDF at the end of this 6-part blog series.

This has been cross-posted at Skeptical Science.


Debunking myths is problematic. Unless great care is taken, any effort to debunk misinformation can inadvertently reinforce the very myths one seeks to correct. To avoid these “backfire effects”, an effective debunking requires three major elements. First, the refutation must focus on core facts rather than the myth to avoid the misinformation becoming more familiar. Second, any mention of a myth should be preceded by explicit warnings to notify the reader that the upcoming information is false. Finally, the refutation should include an alternative explanation that accounts for important qualities in the original misinformation.

Debunking the first myth about debunking

It’s self-evident that democratic societies should base their decisions on accurate information. On many issues, however, misinformation can become entrenched in parts of the community, particularly when vested interests are involved.1,2  Reducing the influence of misinformation is a difficult and complex challenge.

A common misconception about myths is the notion that removing its influence is as simple as packing more information into people’s heads. This approach assumes that public misperceptions are due to a lack of knowledge and that the solution is more information - in science communication, it’s known as  the “information deficit model”. But that model is wrong: people don’t process information as simply as a hard drive downloading data. 

Refuting misinformation involves dealing with complex cognitive processes. To successfully impart knowledge, communicators need to understand how people process information, how they modify their existing knowledge and how worldviews affect their ability to think rationally. It’s not just what people think that matters, but how they think.

First, let’s be clear about what we mean by the label “misinformation” - we use it to refer to any information that people have acquired that turns out to be incorrect, irrespective of why and how that information was acquired in the first place. We are concerned with the cognitive processes that govern how people process corrections to information they have already acquired - if you find out that something you believe is wrong, how do you update your knowledge and memory?

Once people receive misinformation, it’s quite difficult to remove its influence. This was demonstrated in a 1994 experiment where people were exposed to misinformation about a fictitious warehouse fire, then given a correction clarifying the parts of the story that were incorrect.3 Despite remembering and accepting the correction, people still showed a lingering effect, referring to the misinformation when answering questions about the story. 

Is it possible to completely eliminate the influence of misinformation? The evidence indicates that no matter how vigorously and repeatedly we correct the misinformation, for example by repeating the correction over and over again, the influence remains detectable.4 The old saying got it right - mud sticks.

There is also an added complication. Not only is misinformation difficult to remove, debunking a myth can actually strengthen it in people’s minds. Several different “backfire effects” have been observed, arising from making myths more familiar,5,6 from providing too many arguments,7 or from providing evidence that threatens one’s worldview.8

The last thing you want to do when debunking misinformation is blunder in and make matters worse. So this handbook has a specific focus - providing practical tips to effectively debunk misinformation and avoid the various backfire effects. To achieve this, an understanding of the relevant cognitive processes is necessary. We explain some of the interesting psychological research in this area and finish with an example of an effective rebuttal of a common myth.


  1. Jacques, P. J., & Dunlap, R. E. (2008). The organisation of denial: Conservative think tanks and environmental skepticism. Environmental Politics, 17, 349-385.
  2. Oreskes, N., & Conway, E. M. (2010). Merchants of doubt. Bloomsbury Publishing. 
  3. Johnson, H. M., & Seifert, C. M. (1994). Sources of the continued influence effect: When discredited information in memory affects later inferences. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 20 (6), 1420-1436.
  4. Ecker, U. K., Lewandowsky, S., Swire, B., & Chang, D. (2011). Correcting false information in memory: Manipulating the strength of misinformation encoding and its retraction. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 18, 570-578.
  5. Skurnik, I., Yoon, C., Park, D., & Schwarz, N. (2005). How warnings about false claims become recommendations. Journal of Consumer Research, 31, 713-724.
  6. Weaver, K., Garcia, S. M., Schwarz, N., & Miller, D. T. (2007). Inferring the popularity of an opinion from its familiarity: A repetitive voice sounds like a chorus. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 821-833. 
  7. Schwarz, N., Sanna, L., Skurnik, I., & Yoon, C. (2007). Metacognitive experiences and the intricacies of setting people straight:Implications for debiasing and public information campaigns. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 39, 127-161.
  8. Nyhan, B., & Reifler, J. (2010). When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions. Political Behavior, 32, 303-330.

Bookmark and Share


1  2  Next

Comments 1 to 50 out of 57:

  1. I have read your article, it is very informative and helpful for me.I admire the valuable information you offer in your articles. Thanks for posting it..
    dj und hochzeit
  2. japan.comp234 at 20:13 PM on 5 October, 2015
    i really like this article please keep it up.
    twitter followers
    youtube subscribers
  3. brad.haddon234 at 23:10 PM on 5 October, 2015
    nice bLog! its interesting. thank you for sharing....
    free facebook likes
    free youtube views
  4. Thankyou for this wondrous post, I am happy I watched this site on hurray. health news
  5. This is my first time i visit here. I found so many interesting stuff in your blog especially its discussion. From the tons of comments on your articles, I guess I am not the only one having all the enjoyment here! keep up the good work
  6. Thanks, that was a really cool read! up b.ed application
  7. Very good points you wrote here..Great stuff...I think you've made some truly interesting points.Keep up the good work.
  8. japan.comp234 at 17:59 PM on 2 March, 2016
    Excellent and very exciting site. Love to watch. Keep Rocking. Video Takeover
  9. japan.comp234 at 18:57 PM on 3 March, 2016
    The website is looking bit flashy and it catches the visitors eyes. Design is pretty simple and a good user friendly interface. Holiday
  10. japan.comp234 at 18:35 PM on 8 March, 2016
    Thanks for taking the time to discuss this, I feel strongly about it and love learning more on this topic. sales envy review
  11. japan.comp234 at 19:47 PM on 8 March, 2016
    Absolutely fantastic posting! Lots of useful information and inspiration, both of which we all need!Relay appreciate your work. easy ecom formula di scount
  12. japan.comp234 at 18:34 PM on 9 March, 2016
    Hello, I have browsed most of your posts. This post is probably where I got the most useful information for my research. Thanks for posting, maybe we can see more on this. Are you aware of any other websites on this subject. Check This Out
  13. japan.comp234 at 18:11 PM on 10 March, 2016
    Very nice article, I enjoyed reading your post, very nice share, I want to twit this to my followers. Thanks!. 100k Factory Ultra Edition
  14. japan.comp234 at 18:35 PM on 11 March, 2016
    I think this is an informative post and it is very useful and knowledgeable. therefore, I would like to thank you for the efforts you have made in writing this article. Sales Envy Review
  15. japan.comp234 at 22:53 PM on 15 March, 2016
    Thanks for the nice blog. It was very useful for me. I'm happy I found this blog. Thank you for sharing with us,I too always learn something new from your post.
  16. japan.comp234 at 18:23 PM on 17 March, 2016
    I really like your take on the issue. I now have a clear idea on what this matter is all about.. Email spike review
  17. japan.comp234 at 17:12 PM on 22 March, 2016
    Great Article it its really informative and innovative keep us posted with new updates. its was really valuable. thanks a lot. GB Vehicle Hire
  18. japan.comp234 at 20:15 PM on 28 March, 2016
    I really loved reading your blog. It was very well authored and easy to understand. Unlike other blogs I have read which are really not that good.Thanks alot! Inbox Blueprint 2.0
  19. brad.haddon234 at 18:52 PM on 1 April, 2016
    Interesting topic for a blog. I have been searching the Internet for fun and came upon your website. Fabulous post. Thanks a ton for sharing your knowledge! It is great to see that some people still put in an effort into managing their websites. I'll be sure to check back again real soon. van hire Birmingham
  20. japan.comp234 at 16:46 PM on 5 April, 2016
    useful information on topics that plenty are interested on for this wonderful post.Admiring the time and effort you put into your b!.. tuition Birmingham
  21. japan.comp234 at 22:25 PM on 6 April, 2016
    Thanks for sharing this information. I really like your blog post very much. You have really shared a informative and interesting blog post with people.. mihran kalaydjian
  22. japan.comp234 at 18:37 PM on 13 April, 2016
    nice bLog! its interesting. thank you for sharing.... Businessman's Modern Cars
  23. japan.comp234 at 15:21 PM on 16 April, 2016
    Thank you very much for this useful article. I like it. The Psystrology Method
  24. japan.comp234 at 17:32 PM on 18 April, 2016
    I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often. quotenvergleich sportwetten
  25. japan.comp234 at 01:35 AM on 21 April, 2016
    Great job for publishing such a beneficial web site. Your web log isn’t only useful but it is additionally really creative too. There tend to be not many people who can certainly write not so simple posts that artistically. Continue the nice writing
    The Psystrology Method
  26. japan.comp234 at 17:36 PM on 22 April, 2016
    I high appreciate this post. It’s hard to find the good from the bad sometimes, but I think you’ve nailed it! would you mind updating your blog with more information? Click here
  27. japan.comp234 at 16:11 PM on 23 April, 2016
    Thanks for sharing this quality information with us. I really enjoyed reading. Will surely going to share this URL with my friends. Aston Martin DB4/5/6 Overview
  28. japan.comp234 at 20:10 PM on 26 April, 2016
    I found your this post while searching for information about blog-related research ... It's a good post .. keep posting and updating information. tree doctor kingwood
  29. japan.comp234 at 17:07 PM on 27 April, 2016
    Absolutely fantastic posting! Lots of useful information and inspiration, both of which we all need!Relay appreciate your work. college essays
  30. brad.haddon234 at 16:08 PM on 30 April, 2016
    Thank you for taking the time to publish this information very useful! cheapest twitter followers can you buy views on youtube
  31. japan.comp234 at 16:52 PM on 3 May, 2016
    Superbly written article, if only all bloggers offered the same content as you, the internet would be a far better place.. prescription testosterone boosters
  32. japan.comp234 at 21:53 PM on 5 May, 2016
    Superbly written article, if only all bloggers offered the same content as you, the internet would be a far better place.. air conditioning repair
  33. japan.comp234 at 16:40 PM on 7 May, 2016
    Good website! I truly love how it is easy on my eyes it is. I am wondering how I might be notified whenever a new post has been made. I have subscribed to your RSS which may do the trick? Have a great day! Capture His Heart Review
  34. japan.comp234 at 17:44 PM on 7 May, 2016
    Superbly written article, if only all bloggers offered the same content as you, the internet would be a far better place.. retro costumes
  35. japan.comp234 at 20:18 PM on 12 May, 2016
    Thanks so much for sharing this awesome info! I am looking forward to see more postsby you! rockabilly clothing
  36. japan.comp234 at 22:40 PM on 13 May, 2016
    Very nice article, I enjoyed reading your post, very nice share, I want to twit this to my followers. Thanks!. latest news today
  37. japan.comp234 at 19:54 PM on 17 May, 2016
    This is a good post. This post gives truly quality information. I’m definitely going to look into it. Really very useful tips are provided here. Thank you so much. Keep up the good works. business seo company
  38. japan.comp234 at 16:51 PM on 18 May, 2016
    I would like to thank you for the efforts you have made in writing this article. I am hoping the same best work from you in the future as well.. CPA Ads Academy review
  39. brad.haddon234 at 16:16 PM on 25 May, 2016
    Positive site, where did u come up with the information on this posting? I'm pleased I discovered it though, ill be checking back soon to find out what additional posts you include. loft conversions twickenham
  40. brad.haddon234 at 16:56 PM on 26 May, 2016
    i read a lot of stuff and i found that the way of writing to clearifing that exactly want to say was very good so i am impressed and ilike to come again in future.. loft conversions essex
  41. japan.comp234 at 18:48 PM on 30 May, 2016
    Thank you for very usefull information.. loftplan
  42. japan.comp234 at 23:04 PM on 31 May, 2016
    This is a brilliant blog! I'm very happy with the comments!.. Web 2.0 backlinks services
  43. japan.comp234 at 23:38 PM on 4 June, 2016
    I am unable to read articles online very often, but I’m glad I did today. This is very well written and your points are well-expressed. Please, don’t ever stop writing. SAME DAY FLOWER DELIVERY
  44. japan.comp234 at 19:08 PM on 8 June, 2016
    Thanks so much for sharing this awesome info! I am looking forward to see more postsby you! loft conversions london
  45. japan.comp234 at 23:02 PM on 11 June, 2016
    Best work you have done, this online website is really cool with great facts. vintage shop online uk
  46. japan.comp234 at 19:19 PM on 14 June, 2016
    howdy, your websites are really good. I appreciate your work. web development
  47. japan.comp234 at 16:12 PM on 15 June, 2016
    Love what you're doing here guys, keep it up!.. buy soundcloud plays 1000 followers
  48. japan.comp234 at 17:15 PM on 20 June, 2016
    This was a really great contest and hopefully I can attend the next one. It was alot of fun and I really enjoyed myself.. phenq at gnc
  49. japan.comp234 at 20:24 PM on 25 June, 2016
    Nice post. I was checking constantly this blog and I am impressed! Extremely helpful information specially the last part I care for such info a lot. I was seeking this particular information for a very long time. Thank you and good luck.
  50. japan.comp234 at 19:23 PM on 27 June, 2016
    This article is an appealing wealth of informative data that is interesting and well-written. I commend your hard work on this and thank you for this information. You’ve got what it takes to get attention. New York Web Design

1  2  Next

Comments Policy

Post a Comment

You need to be logged in to post a comment. Login via the left margin or register a new account.