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

December 30, 2011

Debunking Myths About Islam and the Muslim World (Part 2)

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

The Familiarity Backfire Effect

The driving force is the fact that familiarity increases the chances of accepting information as true. Immediately after reading the flyer, people remembered the details that debunked the myth and successfully identified the myths. As time passed, however, the memory of the details faded and all people remembered was the myth without the “tag” that identified it as false. This effect is particularly strong in older adults because their memories are more vulnerable to forgetting of details.

This section referred to a psychological experiment in which people were asked to read a flyer that debunked common myths about flu vaccines. What the experiment showed was that, instead of helping to debunk the myths, as was intended, the way in which the flyer was written actually helped to reinforce the myths that the author intended to debunk. How we discuss Islam and the Muslim world to non-Muslims becomes critical, and most, if not all of us, are probably guilty (including myself) in terms of answering non-Muslims the wrong way.

How does one avoid causing the Familiarity Backfire Effect? Ideally, avoid mentioning the myth altogether while correcting it. When seeking to counter misinformation, the best approach is to focus on the facts you wish to communicate.

In other words, instead of trying to debunk the myth by stating the myth prominently in our essays, the best thing to do is to avoid mentioning the myth altogether. We continue to debunk the myth using our facts, but we avoid mentioning the myth if at all possible.

Not mentioning the myth is sometimes not a practical option. In this case, the emphasis of the debunking should be on the facts. The often-seen technique of headlining your debunking with the myth in big, bold letters is the last thing you want to do. Instead, communicate your core fact in the headline. Your debunking should begin with emphasis on the facts, not the myth. Your goal is to increase people’s familiarity with the facts.

Thus, if you have to mention the myth at all, bury it deep within the essay so that the focus is on your facts. The following is an example the authors provided of an essay debunking a climate myth; notice where the myth is discussed in the essay:

Sun and climate are going in opposite directions

Over the last few decades of global warming, the sun has shown a slight cooling trend. Sun and climate are going in opposite directions. This has led a number of scientists to independently conclude that the sun cannot be the cause of recent global warming.

One of the most common and persistent climate myths is that the sun is the cause of global warming.

This myth cherry picks the data - showing past periods when sun and climate move together but ignoring the last few decades when the two diverge.

The myth is not discussed until the third sentence, after the core facts being presented are brought up in both the title and first paragraph.

Next: The Overkill Backfire Effect

December 29, 2011

Debunking Myths About Islam and the Muslim World (Part 1)

I've come across a very short but interesting pdf file called The Debunking Handbook, written by two Australian professors, John Cook (University of Queensland) and Stephan Lewandowsky (University of Western Australia). This handbook is written in a general manner and the techniques discussed can be applied to any type of misinformation. The example presented in the handbook is with respect to climate change and those people who deny that climate change has come about from human activity; however, I think the techniques can be applied just as easily to Islam and the Muslim world. Thus, I hope to provide excerpts from the handbook and write some commentary so that we Muslims can better debunk the misinformation that people spread about our religion.


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.

The three "backfire effects" discussed in the handbook will be discussed at length in future posts.

Debunking the first myth about debunking

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.

I think this definition is fairly straightforward; I also think we Muslims have a very good grasp as to the types of misinformation we come across on a daily basis from a very hostile non-Muslim world.

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. The old saying got it right - mud sticks.

I also think this point is well known to us. This is the never-ending battle we Muslims face when dealing with both the Islamophobes who actively work to spread misinformation and an ignorant non-Muslim public who, while their intentions may be well-meaning, have little knowledge about Islam and the Muslim world that may cause them to be gullible about the misinformation produced by the haters.

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, from providing too many arguments, or from providing evidence that threatens one’s worldview.

What the authors provide are some very practical techniques that we Muslims can use to help debunk the misinformation that is aimed at Islam and the Muslim world. These techniques help to minimize the three "backfire effects" that are next discussed in the paper: the "Familiarity Backfire Effect," the "Overkill Backfire Effect," and the "Worldview Backfire Effect." I will discuss, insha'allah, each of these effects in separate posts.

Next: The Familiarity Backfire Effect

December 24, 2011

Watts Best of Summer 2011

I normally put up the Watts "Best of" compilation video at the end of every year, but am not able to find this year's video so far. Instead, I found the "Best of Summer 2011" video, which will suffice for the time being. :) Warning: NSFW - no nudity, but plenty of female skin.

December 22, 2011

Footsteps in Heaven

It is related by Abu Hurayrah that the Prophet (s) once said to Bilal at the time of fajr: "Tell me about your act from which you expect the most in your Islam, for I have heard the sound of your footsteps in heaven."

"I have done nothing," replied Bilal, "which could give me hope, except that when I perform the wudu' in any part of the day or night I try to offer as much of salah with it as I can." (al-Bukhari)
-- from The Four Pillars of Islam by Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi

December 2, 2011

Persuasive Words

The following are the 16 most persuasive words in the English language, in no particular order (keep them in mind): own, investment, best, guaranteed, proven, save, new, free, freedom, money, easy, good, discover, health, and safe.

December 1, 2011

America's "Arrogant Ignorance"

The following appeared in the November 19th edition of the Arizona Republic. I completely agree with Dr. Michael Crow's assessment of the situation in the United States. Dr. Crow mentioned the idea of Americans resting on their laurels; in my opinion, not only is this true, but the problem is exacerbated by many Americans' believing in "American exceptionalism." I can tell you that not only do other people around the world not believe in the idea of how "exceptional" the United States is, but that they are working as hard as possible to be better than Americans in all sorts of fields: education, commerce, industry, and so forth. Too many Americans would rather be fat, stupid and lazy, then complain about why the rest of the world is passing them by and taking "their" jobs. Dr. Crow's message should be a wake-up call to Americans that they need to rethink how American society should operate before the so-called "American exceptionalism" turns permanently into "American mediocrity." The United States is already on its way there.

More than 200 people at a Peoria conference got a jolt of reality along with their caffeine from Arizona State University President Michael Crow, who said a collective "arrogant ignorance" holds the nation back.

He cited an education system that's not innovative enough, a lack of awareness or acknowledgment of global competition and lack of long-term vision.

Crow, the morning keynote speaker Thursday at the city's second annual Positive Action through Civic Engagement conference didn't mince words in his hourlong address, taking on what he called the "800-pound elephant sitting in the room."

The state of the economy.

Crow said the country needs to work toward a common goal of economic success and global competitiveness, which would help achieve other goals of social, cultural and community development.

He outlined "realistic assessments" of the United States, often forcefully, thumping the lectern on stage at the Arizona Broadway Theatre.

The ASU president said the country is resting on its laurels, which is not enough to come out of the economic morass.

"We don't understand the rise and the development of the rest of the world as competitors; we feel it but we don't understand it," he said. "We are going to have to look ourselves in the mirror, pull ourselves together as a community and literally re-think many, many things."

Crow said looking to the federal government for all the answers is not the solution. He urged the audience, comprising business, education and community leaders, to understand that the solutions to problems come from communities.

"Communities and states are the laboratories of democracy," he said. "We are the means by which solutions will be derived, new pathways will be engineered."

Crow also criticized the K-12 and higher-education systems for being "insufficiently innovative," and stifled by the "model of the past."

He said the focus should be on how K-12 schools are doing, "not compared with the school down the street or the school up in Flagstaff," but with schools internationally.

"We're not where we should be," Crow said.

He took on his peers, other research university presidents, for thinking narrowly only of the elite students and educators. They must be more inclusive to better educate the country.

"The level of arrogance among these individuals and these institutions is beyond belief," Crow said.

He spoke of the need to think big, not in the narrow prism of growth within a city or company but regionally, to compete not with Tempe or Tucson but with Singapore or Shanghai.

For that, he singled out the need to think about growth in the context of the larger Sun Corridor in Arizona, one of 10 megapolitans identified as hubs for growth because of their collective infrastructure and resources. The corridor stretching from Prescott to Tucson, across Yavapai, Maricopa, Pinal and Pima counties, has a collective economy the size of Finland, Malaysia or the United Arab Emirates, he said.

To compete globally, leaders would have to take the long-term view and make decisions regionally.

Crow said it doesn't help to just focus on dealing with people who no longer have jobs and how to keep them going in the short-term with unemployment benefits. Leaders must focus on how the unemployed are being prepared for the jobs that need filled going forward.

"By being economically competitive, we can build from that the societies we want," Crow said.

The speech impressed several audience members.

AARP Arizona volunteer Virginia Correa Creager told Crow she would work to spread the word. "It's incumbent on us not to just listen to you today, not to just take notes from you today but it's incumbent upon us to reach out into the community and spread the message that you gave us today," she said.

The message of working collectively for the larger cause of economic prosperity hit home for Sandy Mendez Benson of Washington Elementary School District. She said that's something she works on at the local level, "trying to pool resources and ideas" between schools and the local businesses and community residents.