Busting myths: a practical guide to countering science denial

It should go without saying that science should dictate how we respond to science denial. So what does scientific research tell us?

One effective way to reduce the influence of science denial is through “inoculation”: you can build resistance to misinformation by exposing people to a weak form of the misinformation.

How do we practically achieve that? There are two key elements to refuting misinformation. The first half of a debunking is offering a factual alternative. To understand what I mean by this, you need to understand what happens in a person’s mind when you correct a misconception.


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People build mental models of how the world works, where all the different parts of the model fit together like cogs. Imagine one of those cogs is a myth. When you explain that the myth is false, you pluck out that cog, leaving a gap in their mental model.

Debunking myths creates gaps in people’s mental models. That gap needs to be filled with an alternative fact.
John Cook, Author provided

But people feel uncomfortable with an incomplete model. They want to feel as if they know what’s going on. So if you create a gap, you need to fill the gap with an alternative fact.

For example, it’s not enough to just provide evidence that a suspect in a murder trial is innocent. To prove them innocent – at least in people’s minds – you need to provide an alternative suspect.

However, it’s not enough to simply explain the facts. The golden rule of debunking, from the book Made To Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath, is to fight sticky myths with even stickier facts. So you need to make your science sticky, meaning simple, concrete messages that grab attention and stick in the memory.

How do you make science sticky? Chip and Dan Heath suggest the acronym SUCCES to summarise the characteristics of sticky science:

  • Simple: To paraphrase a quote from Nobel prize winner Ernest Rutherford: if you can’t explain your physics simply, it’s probably not very good physics.

  • Unexpected: If your science is counter-intuitive, embrace it! Use the unexpectedness to take people by surprise.

  • Credible: Ideally, source your information from the most credible source of information available: peer-reviewed scientific research.

  • Concrete: One of the most powerful tools to make abstract science concrete is analogies or metaphors.

  • Emotional: Scientists are trained to remove emotion from their science. However, even scientists are human and it can be quite powerful when we express our passion for science or communicate how our results affect us personally.

  • Stories: Shape your science into a compelling narrative.