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

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