Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Debunking Handbook Part 1: The First Myth About Debunking

The Debunking Handbook Part 1: The First Myth About Debunking

Posted: 26 Dec 2011 09:00 AM PST

The Debunking Handbook is a 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

This is part one in a five-part series by John Cook originally published 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.

– John Cook

The Debunking Handbook, a guide to debunking misinformation, is now freely available to download. Although there is a great deal of psychological research on misinformation, there's no summary of the literature that offers practical guidelines on the most effective ways of reducing the influence of myths. The Debunking Handbook boils the research down into a short, simple summary, intended as a guide for communicators in all areas (not just climate) who encounter misinformation.


  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.

NASA: Climate Change May Flip 40% of Earth's Major Ecosystems This Century

Posted: 26 Dec 2011 07:00 AM PST

by Rolf Schuttenhelm, cross-posted from Bits of Science

The results of studies that try to quantify the effects of climate change on biodiversity loss — which include damage to the micro scale level of subspecies and genetic variation — are perhaps most shocking.

When, however, you focus on the response to climate change at the macro level, the ecosystem level, you get a better understanding of what is one of the major drivers of that biodiversity loss: forced migrations. And even here, the numbers may be larger than one would expect, as a new assessment by NASA and Caltech published in the journal Climatic Change shows that by 2100 some 40 percent of "major ecological community types" – that is biomes like forest, grassland, tundra – will have switched to a different such state.

According to the same study most of the land on Earth that is not currently desert or under an icecap will undergo at least a 30 percent change in vegetation cover.

Ecological damage is the real climate problem

Based on IPCC temperature projections for 2100 [which are probably on the conservative side] of 2-4 degrees Celsius warming scientists of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the California Institute of Technology ran special computer models to calculate the most probable ecosystem responses across the planet. This average temperature rise is of similar magnitude to the warming that occurred between the Last Glacial Maximum and the onset of the (milder) Holocene – with the big exception that the current warming is happening about 100 times faster – and for ecology that makes a huge difference, the authors stress.

"While warnings of melting glaciers, rising sea levels and other environmental changes are illustrative and important, ultimately, it's the ecological consequences that matter most," says John Bergengren from Caltech, who led the study.

It is not just species that have slowly evolved around specific climatic values, the same goes for ecosystems. As another study, recently published in Science, shows tropical biomes like rainforest, savanna and desert are tied to specific climate tipping points. When certain climatic thresholds are crossed the one ecosystem can suddenly switch to the other, as intermediate states somehow prove to be non-existent.

Migrations will crisscross

As ecosystems shift on a timescale of centuries or less, species cannot adapt [because the required structural evolution takes millions of years] so they have to start moving to find other suited habitat, resembling their original climate and vegetation zones. For most species this requires migration towards the poles – but of course our planet's many features, from mountain ranges, rivers and coastlines, to areas with high human population density and anything from agricultural plains to highways, industries and parking lots, greatly increases the extinction risk for individual species.

Perhaps somewhat harder to envision for us is that [as other new research shows] under continued climate change marine species face similar migratory distances – as the complexity of that blue world below the waterline is not limited to the presence of salty water, and finding replacement ecosystems may be equally challenging for a coral fish as it is for an orangutan.

The fact that some species are much better capable of migrating than others will likely only increase ecological imbalances and the risk of dangerous ecosystem plague damage.

Most sensitive climate hotspots

The new study by NASA and Caltech defines as ecologically sensitive hotspots – areas projected to undergo the greatest degree of species turnover – regions in the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau [as this 'third pole' is in fact to be considered a climatic island], eastern equatorial Africa [which has an unstable drought-sensitive climate], Madagascar, the Mediterranean region, southern South America, and North America's Great Lakes and Great Plains areas. The largest areas of ecological sensitivity and biome changes predicted for this century are found in areas with the most dramatic climate change: in the Northern Hemisphere high latitudes, particularly along the northern and southern boundaries of taiga or boreal forests.

Rolf Schuttenhelm is a climate analyst at MeteoVista and a Science Writer for Bits of Science, where this piece was originally published.

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Top 5 Fisheries Stories of 2011: It's Not All Bad News

Posted: 26 Dec 2011 05:00 AM PST

by Michael Conathan

This year was a big one for fisheries. If you're into fishery legislation and important milestones, you already know that it was the 35th anniversary of the Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the law that first ejected foreign fishing fleets from the United States' exclusive economic zone and provided the foundation for how we manage our fisheries. It was also the 15th anniversary of the Sustainable Fisheries Act and the fifth anniversary of passage of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Reauthorization Act, the last two major updates to our fisheries statute.

But there were also many significant developments this year that will benefit our fishing industries and our marine environment for generations to come. Here's a quick rundown of the top five stories in fishery management from 2011.

1. Ending overfishing in America

By far the biggest story of the year in fisheries management was the successful implementation of annual catch limits in our fisheries. This effectively ended overfishing in America. In March, National Marine Fisheries Service Administrator Eric Schwaab announced that his agency was on track to implement science-based catch limits on all 528 federally managed species of fish, thereby preventing overfishing—the act of catching more fish than science dictates can be sustainably harvested—from occurring in U.S. fisheries.

Of course, fisheries science remains an elusive discipline, and our estimates of fish stock populations are rife with variables. This means that as more data are collected, our perceptions of the health of fish populations may change, and we may realize that what we thought were sustainable harvest levels may have been overly optimistic.

Still, given that fisheries scientists don't have a crystal ball showing what the future holds for fish populations, operating within limits that reflect the best science we have still gives the United States worldwide bragging rights to say our fisheries are the most sustainably managed on the planet. And that's no small feat. So whether you're putting a piece of Alaskan salmon or Atlantic swordfish on your plate, you can end 2011 with the assurance that if it's U.S.-caught, it's sustainable.

2. Cracking down on pirate fishing

Illegal fishing activities, more colorfully known as "pirate fishing," are carried out by vessels that are either unregulated or operating in direct violation of the laws of their home countries. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, pirate fishermen are responsible for catching as much as 26 million tons of seafood annually with a value possibly as high as $23 billion worldwide. These fishermen represent a significant threat to the future sustainability of global fisheries.

Two important steps were taken this year to rein in this harmful activity. The first was a recent U.S.-EU agreement that Jane Lubchenco, administration of NOAA, referred to as a "down payment" on future efforts to stop pirate fishing.

EU Fisheries Commissioner Maria Damanaki traveled to the United States in September for a series of meetings. The European Union is developing its Common Fisheries Policy, the governing statute for EU fisheries, which is roughly analogous to our Magnuson-Stevens Act. As the Europeans attempt to hammer out a compromise on the intricate details of fishery management, Commissioner Damanaki joined Lubchenco to announce that the European Union and the United States had established a bilateral cooperation to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing.

And second, on the domestic front, just last week Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI) introduced legislation supported by the Obama administration that would implement an international agreement preventing vessels that engage in pirate fishing from entering their ports.

3. The little fish that could

No smaller fish made bigger headlines in 2011 than the 12-inch-long menhaden, a species that scientists and conservationists say is fundamental to the ocean food web as prey for larger species of fish, such as striped bass, and seabirds like osprey and bald eagles. Menhaden don't end up in fish markets but are more typically processed into fishmeal and fish oil because they are so rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, which have tremendous health benefits. They're also often used as bait in other fisheries.

In November the Atlantic States Fishery Management Coalition—the interstate body charged with managing fishing that occurs primarily in state waters along the Atlantic coastal—voted 14-3 to reduce the catch limit for menhaden by 37 percent after scientific recommendations and more than 90,000 public comments urged them to take such action.

This action was particularly noteworthy both for the volume of interest it generated from recreational fishermen and the general public, and for the fact that the action was taken despite a stock assessment completed in 2010 that said the resource was not overfished and overfishing was not occurring.

Thus, catch in the menhaden fishery was not limited primarily to benefit the species itself but rather to benefit its predators.

This decision was a prime example of ecosystem-based management, a concept conservationists have been preaching for years: that we should manage a species according to its role in the ecosystem rather than simply looking at each as an individual. The menhaden decision was a step forward for such big-picture analysis.

Besides, a big reduction in its catch limit must have been a welcome consolation prize for a species that in February lost a bid to be named the Virginia state fish. The winner of that vote? Menhaden's biggest predator: the striped bass. Gulp.

4. The farmer in the delta

Aquaculture, perhaps better known as fish farming, is certain to be a part of our future with the world population on the rise and wild fish stocks under increasing stress from fishing pressure as well as rising ocean temperatures and increasing acidification as a result of global climate change. In June, NOAA announced a new aquaculture policy that recognized the need to develop this industry domestically in a manner that addresses environmental concerns.

Aquaculture certainly has its detractors, however, who fear further industrialization of our ocean space, the potential for increased water pollution from fish food and waste, and that escapes of farmed fish could affect wild populations. In October, for example, some British Colombian scientists reported discovering a highly infectious Atlantic salmon virus in some wild Pacific salmon, which are an entirely different species. To date, Canadian officials have yet to replicate these findings, but a hearing is currently ongoing before a provincial justice of Canada's Supreme Court to get to the bottom of the allegations.

Still, as I discussed in June, if we take domestic aquaculture off the table, our options for seafood become extremely unpalatable. Foreign farmed fish is filthier than anything we would ever allow here, our domestic wild fisheries are already stressed, and the environmental impacts of additional beef, chicken, and pork production make aquaculture look positively pristine.

Thinking we should eat more vegetables and less fish? Try selling vegetarianism as a wide-scale solution to Americans' omnivorous ways and see how far you get. Especially with my 4-year-old. NOAA's policy represents an excellent step toward a future that includes domestic, sustainable seafood.

5. Sharks are friends, not soup

2011 was a banner year for sharks, particularly when it came to combating the practice of shark finning. Because shark fins have such a high market value relative to the value of the meat, some fishermen engage in finning—slashing the fins off sharks and tossing the rest of their carcasses overboard.

The fins are mainly prized as the signature element in the Asian delicacy shark fin soup, which can sell for more than $1,000 per serving in some high-end restaurants despite the insistence by epicures that the fin itself adds nothing to the actual taste of the dish.

In addition to being inherently cruel—a finless shark cannot swim and will die slowly—this practice also allows fishermen to catch far more sharks. And increased harvest can put entire species at risk since sharks are slow to reproduce.

To combat finning, President Obama signed the Shark Conservation Act in January, which strengthened the law banning the practice in U.S. waters. Then in October, California passed a law banning the sale of shark fins throughout the state, joining Washington, Oregon, Hawaii, and Guam. And in November, a high-end chain of hotels in Asia announced it was taking shark fin soup off its menus.

A public service announcement from NBA superstar Yao Ming and a CNN "Planet in Peril" report featuring actress Lisa Ling may have helped the cause as well.

In the film "Finding Nemo," Pixar portrayed three frightening sharks claiming "fish are friends not food." It's nice to be able to return the sentiment.

Michael Conathan is the Director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress. This piece was originally published at the Center for American Progress website.

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