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

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