December 31, 2011

Debunking Myths About Islam and the Muslim World (Part 3)

This is the third post in a series commenting about The Debunking Handbook from the perspective of debunking the myths about Islam and the Muslim world.

The Overkill Backfire Effect

One principle that science communicators often fail to follow is making their content easy to process. That means easy to read, easy to understand and succinct. Information that is easy to process is more likely to be accepted as true. Merely enhancing the color contrast of a printed font so it is easier to read, for example, can increase people’s acceptance of the truth of a statement.

Muslim writers face similar problems in that we have our own jargon, often Arabic-based, that non-Muslims frequently do not comprehend. We use this jargon in part because we understand the nuances of meaning in the words we use, whereas, to non-Muslims, these same words may have other connotations that may be only partially correct or not correct at all. The classic example is the word jihad. I’m not saying that we Muslims should not use our terminology when explaining Islamic concepts to non-Muslims but that we may wish to simplify what we have to say so as to increase understanding. More on this will be discussed below.

The point about enhancing color contrast is a good one, and I’ve done this in my own blogging for a number of years. For example, I normally use black font on a white background. However, if I’m quoting something that I think is stupid or reprehensible, I will change the font color to red, while blue is used for points that I agree with and want to highlight. Qur’anic verses are printed in dark green font, and ahadith are printed in teal (i.e., blue-green). Use whatever system works best for you.

When it comes to refuting misinformation, less can be more. Debunks that offered three arguments, for example, are more successful in reducing the influence of misinformation, compared to debunks that offered twelve arguments which ended up reinforcing the myth.

The Overkill Backfire Effect occurs because processing many arguments takes more effort than just considering a few. A simple myth is more cognitively attractive than an over-complicated correction.

I don’t see this problem too often, at least among Muslim writers, although I do see it occasionally in political essays. Essays that just keep going on and on. Keep your essay short and sweet. Use three points at the most, and save the best for last. If you have more arguments you want to use, put them in a separate essay.

The solution is to keep your content lean, mean and easy to read. Making your content easy to process means using every tool available. Use simple language, short sentences, subheadings and paragraphs. Avoid dramatic language and derogatory comments that alienate people. Stick to the facts.

All very good suggestions. In particular, avoid ad hominem attacks. If you resort to ad hominems, you’ve lost the argument.

End on a strong and simple message that people will remember and tweet to their friends, such as “97 out of 100 climate scientists agree that humans are causing global warning”; or “Study shows that MMR vaccines are safe.” Use graphics wherever possible to illustrate your points.

This is a very good suggestion, in my opinion. Give your allies the hook they need to pass your message on through social media, Facebook and Twitter in particular. Doing so can work to your benefit, spreading your message to other people whom you might otherwise have never reached.

[T]oo much information can backfire. Adhere instead to the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid!

Sage advice, but all too frequently forgotten (myself included).

Writing at a simple level runs the risk of sacrificing the complexities and nuances of the concepts you wish to communicate. At Skeptical Science, we gain the best of both worlds by publishing rebuttals at several levels. Basic versions are written using short, plain English text and simplified graphics. More technical Intermediate and Advanced versions are also available with more technical language and detailed explanations. The icons used on ski runs are used as visual cues to denote the technical level of each rebuttal.

This is an interesting suggestion, but one that requires more time and effort in order to be successful. In essence, you are rewriting your message several times, in increasingly more complicated (or simplified) ways. Perhaps we might look at this in terms of the amount of Arabic-based terminology that we use. A simple version would be Arabic-free, the type of writing we would send to a non-Muslim relative or friend who doesn’t understand Islam at all. The advanced version, on the other hand is the one where we use all of the Arabic terminology that we normally include because it’s like writing to a fellow Muslim who would understand all the nuances we are using in the language.

The use of the ski run symbols is interesting, but I wonder just how effective these symbols would be for various readers. I personally am not familiar with these symbols; there aren’t a tremendous number of ski runs here in Singapore, you know. ;) Still, if it works for you, use it.

Next: The Worldview Backfire Effect

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