How to de-bunk myths about Canadian agriculture

The expression ‘mud sticks’ doesn’t just refer to your equipment this wet spring. It also means that misinformation seems to have an uncanny knack of settling in and never letting go.

Misinformation creates myths. And once myths start to propagate on social media they are next to impossible to correct.

Refuting the misinformation that leads to dangerous myths about agriculture involve battling against several complex cognitive processes. And trying to disprove myths can actually have the opposite effect: it can strengthen them in people’s minds. This ‘backfire effect’ * makes myths seem even more familiar and what is familiar is more likely to be perceived as true. Furthermore, explaining to someone how and why their beliefs are untrue threatens their worldview.

What if we offer up even more information? Information that categorically refutes the misinformation? No matter how well laid out your argument or presentation, trying to jam more information into people’s heads to clear up a myth is a myth itself. Rather than sweep away incorrect information, you’ll trip off the ‘information deficit model.’ This model stems from another communication myth, that is, that ignorance of the facts and misperceptions are due to a lack of knowledge and that the solution is to add even more information.

In short, it’s not just what people think that matters, but how. So, is it possible to change how people feel and think about erroneous information?

Survival Tip

To avoid the backfire effect, ‘The Debunking Handbook’ says we must consider three major elements:

  • The refutation must focus on core facts rather than the myth to avoid the misinformation becoming more familiar.
  • Any mention of a myth should be preceded by explicit warnings to notify the reader/listener that the upcoming information is false.
  • The refutation should include an alternative explanation that accounts for important qualities in the original misinformation.

To de-emphasize myths, your goal should be to familiarize people with the facts rather than the myth. Simply avoid mentioning the myth at all, focusing instead on the facts you wish to communicate.

Like familiarity, easy-to-process information is also more likely to be accepted as true so drop the jargon and science-speak. Also, stick to key facts to avoid the Overkill Backfire Effect (similar to the Backfire Effect mentioned above, but where, much like a math word problem, you provide so much information that your audience doesn’t know what to do with it. Since the brain is a powerhouse of efficiency, it will just ignore it all).

Studies have shown that another effective tactic is to arouse suspicion of the source of the misinformation to further reduce its influence.

So, does de-bunking work? Walter Quattrociocchi and his colleagues at the Laboratory of Computational Science at the IMT School for Advanced Studies Lucca in Italy, applied methods of computational social science to a study of conspiracy theories (published in 2015) and found that yes, indeed, humans are not as rational as we like to think. The study indicated that confirmation bias plays a large part in the spread of misinformation, that groups continually exposed to a certain type of narrative typically exclude any information that doesn’t fit with their worldview, and that “people who were exposed to debunking campaigns were 30 percent more likely to keep reading” news that fit the type of information they were looking for. In short, debunking reinforced their beliefs.

It’s very difficult to remove misinformation once it’s settled in someone’s mind. A popular legal expression, ‘you can’t un-ring the bell,’ refers to information being presented to jurors by the prosecutor, objected to by the defense, then withdrawn. Even though the information has been retracted, the jury can’t unhear it. While you can’t turn back to a point in time where your audience hasn’t heard the information, you can use the above-mentioned tips to help them slog through the mess that is out there.


To learn the how-to of de-bunking myths and more science communications tricks, sign up for our Farmer’s Survival Guide workshops.


*Since this blog post was published, some newer research concludes that the backfire effect is not as significant as previously believed. Click here to read more about this.




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