5 Ways to Correct Misinformation While Minimizing the Backfire Effect

5 Ways to Correct Misinformation While Minimizing the Backfire Effect September 28, 2018

In part 1, we explored the Backfire Effect, the surprising effect of a correction to deeply held misinformation reinforcing that misinformation.

The first lesson is that the obvious path—simply providing the new information with references—is not the best when recipients could see this as an attack on their worldview. Let’s see if we can do better.

1. Avoid reinforcing the misinformation

The Debunking Handbook is a great resource for understanding the Backfire Effect and how to minimize it. Their first tip is to focus on the facts, not the myth. Using “President Obama is a Muslim” as an example myth, the last thing that the corrector of this misinformation should do is give any more airtime to the myth. In other words, don’t title the article, “Is Obama a Muslim??”

It’s analogous to how to avoid trouble when driving. When bad things are suddenly happening around you, focus on the safe route through the chaos, not on the accident. And when correcting myths, focus on the truth, not the myth.

The article recommends sandwiching the myth in the facts.

  • The title should focus on the facts without acknowledging the myth—something like “Obama’s Christianity Is as Deep as MLK’s.”
  • Begin the article with facts: Obama’s connection to the church since his twenties, say, or his participation in Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s church.
  • Briefly acknowledge the myth, but clearly label it as wrong: “Some people incorrectly think that President Obama is Muslim” for example.
  • Conclude by showing how the myth is flawed. Give quotes from respected people making the point or quotes from Obama showing his publicly acknowledged faith, say. End with a quotable line that summarizes the fact.

2. Avoid overkill—less is more

There’s a debate maxim that if you’re explaining, you’re losing. That’s the genius behind the “Gish Gallop,” the technique made famous by young-earth Creationist Duane Gish. During interviews and debates, he would vomit forth a torrent of flawed but compelling challenges to evolution. Biologists interviewed with him would often take the bait and carefully explain why each was crap, but these explanations are long and boring. Gish was firing blanks, but he made a lot of noise and often made the better showing.

When correcting a myth, don’t create obstacles for your reader. A mountain of information may be too much to bother with. Make it easy to access, process, and accept. Instead of a pile of arguments, give just a few key arguments that make the point clearly and painlessly. Remember that you’re arguing against a simple, pleasing myth. Your reader doesn’t want to wrestle with a long and boring dissertation.

The basics of clear communication also apply. Use graphics when possible, use short sentences and short paragraphs, and use headings and simple language. Avoid combative language that will alienate. Be respectful and eliminate emotional language.

The journalist’s pyramid model is another useful tool. The reader might leave at any point, and you want the information to that point to be as complete as possible. Start with a broad, high-level view, and work your way down to the details.

The Debunking Handbook gives an example where three tabs on a web page allow readers to choose to read the information at a basic, intermediate, or advanced level based on their knowledge and interest.

3. Avoid attacking worldviews

Attacking someone’s worldview will likely trigger the Backfire Effect and reinforce their commitment to the misinformation, but there are a couple of tricks to Trojan horse the message past the mental barricades. First, putting people in a positive frame of mind—for example, by asking them to write a few sentences about a time they felt good after acting on an important value—makes a new idea less threatening. The article “How facts backfire” observes:

This would also explain why demagogues benefit from keeping people agitated. The more threatened people feel, the less likely they are to listen to dissenting opinions, and the more easily controlled they are.

Another approach is to frame a message through word choices that minimize attacks on someone’s worldview. The organizer of Seattle Skeptics once made a nice save using this approach. He was giving a talk about the 9/11 Truth movement, which argues that the 9/11 attacks were a conspiracy. He expected an audience of skeptics who accepted the official explanation, but it turned out to be an audience of 9/11 Truthers, who embraced the conspiracy. He quickly reframed his message to be more acceptable by using their approach, which is to ask questions such as, “Why do they not want you to know this? What are they hiding?”

The new Truther-flavored argument went something like this: Here’s a response to one of the popular Truther arguments. Why did I have to tell you this instead of the Truther web sites? What do you suppose they’re hiding?

Does this sound like cheating? The article disagrees: “Self-affirmation and framing aren’t about manipulating people. They give the facts a fighting chance.”

A third option focuses on the source of the flawed information rather than the consumer. Make it hurt to spread misinformation. Increase its reputation cost. For example, FactCheck.org is one organization that tries to hold politicians to a high standard.

You may need to focus your message on the winnable subset of the audience. The curious, questioning, or undecideds may be reachable, while you may have to write off those who have no interest in listening to threatening new ideas.

4. Avoid leaving a mental hole

Don’t simply eliminate the myth in someone’s mind. An incomplete model—that is, a model of how things work with the myth crossed out—causes discomfort. The human mind prefers an incorrect model to an incomplete one. Quickly fill that hole with the correct facts, neatly packaged to drop in as a replacement. With a few sentences, show how this corrected model explains the facts better.

To help pry out the myth, you may want to highlight the techniques that made the myth seem plausible—perhaps they used experts who weren’t experts or cherry picked the data. Also consider exposing the agenda of whoever is pushing the myth.

5. Avoid a combative posture—be partners instead

Instead of an “I’m right and you’re wrong” approach, go into the discussion seeing it as a partnership, with both of you trying to figure out the right answer.

Am I worried that Christians will improve their arguments with information in this post? Not at all. When all communication is clearer and biases are avoided, I win. A clearer atheist position will even more strongly beat a clearer Christian position.

And that’s the point about beliefs—they don’t change facts.
Facts, if you’re rational, should change beliefs.

— Ricky Gervais (The Unbelievers movie trailer)


Education is a condom for your brain.
— seen on the internet


(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 12/10/14.)

Image via Wikimedia, CC license

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  • Otto T. Goat

    “church is not their thing, it never was their thing. We knew it wasn’t his but she was not the kind of black woman whose mamma made her go to church, made her go to Sunday school…the church was not an integral part of their lives…the church was an integral part of Barack’s politics. Because he needed that black base” – Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

    • eric

      Not going to church /= muslim. It might be evidence of irreligiosity, but it in no way supports the right-wing assertions that he belongs to a different religion. That logic is functionally equivalent to – and as stupid as – someone claiming “Otto doesn’t go to synagogue, therefore Otto is Hindu.” The former is true while the latter is false, yes? Because the former being true doesn’t imply that the latter is true, yes?

      • Tim Harrison

        Quite right, that observation… Text book false bifurcation.

      • Otto T. Goat

        In part one the author stated “Barack Obama is a Christian. He easily passes the tests you’d give to anyone else: he uses Christian language, he goes to church, and (most importantly) he says he’s a Christian!”, and criticized those who told pollsters they didn’t know the “obvious fact” Obama is a Christian.

        • eric

          Does it work for Republicans too? If Trump doesn’t attend church regularly, or showed a pattern of going to church only after/during his run for President, then does that mean he’s not Christian either?

        • Greg G.

          Trumps favorite Bible book is “Two Corinthians”. He must have read the Table of Contents.

        • epeeist

          If he doesn’t attend church regularly then he must be a Muslim, same as Obama, amirite?

          Of course with Trump the pastors come to him…

    • Raging Bee

      And your point…?

    • ildi

      As for Obama’s infrequent church attendance contributing to confusion, it’s worth noting that Reagan didn’t join a congregation during his two terms, and the Republican icon rarely attended services. In fact, Fred Barnes, of all people, asked Reagan to explain himself on the matter in a 1984 debate.

      “The answer to your question is very simple about why I don’t go to church. I have gone to church regularly all my life, and I started to here in Washington. And now, in the position I hold and in the world in which we live, where Embassies do get blown up in Beirut … but I pose a threat to several hundred people if I go to church.

      “I know the threats that are made against me. We all know the possibility of terrorism. We have seen the barricades that have had to be built around the White House. And, therefore, I don’t feel – and my minister knows this and supports me in this position – I don’t feel that I have a right to go to church, knowing that my being there could cause something of the kind that we have seen in other places, in Beirut, for example. And I miss going to church, but I think the Lord understands.”

      I’ve seen no evidence that Reagan’s infrequent church attendance led to an organized attack on the sincerity of his faith. To understand what it is about Obama that causes the attacks, I’m afraid we’ll have to look elsewhere.

    • ildi

      Looks like only 53 percent of historically Black Protestants count as Christian by your standards.

      [edited to add link-failed to add image 🙁 ]

    • Jim Jones

      In HIS opinion.

      Compared to Trump, Obama is the Archbishop of Canterbury.

  • eric

    These are tactics for debate and argument. The strategy for reducing people’s vulnerability to the backfire effect in the long-term is to educate them in how to accept being wrong. Literally, let them practice being wrong, practice getting over it, have their peers practice not being jerks about it, and them & their peers practice learning from the experience.

    • TinnyWhistler

      They won’t get over it and learn if your way of “helping” them practice being wrong triggers the backfire effect. That’s literally what the backfire effect is.

      This article is about how to get someone to realize that they’re wrong about something without it backfiring.

      • eric

        That’s why you start with practicing being wrong on relatively minor/innocuous issues, and build up to the highly emotional/strong ideology stuff. It’s certainly not impossible to teach people critical thinking about their own beliefs. If it was, the % of PH.D. scientists who are theists would be the same as the % of population who are theists – and it isn’t.

    • Phil Rimmer

      This is hugely the issue and should be part of a very early education scheme.

      A study about ten, fifteen years back showed that problem solving tasks were always better solved in co-operating teams (rather than by the same number of people working independently) if and only if all those contributing had a view of and expressed the opinion of how reliable they thought their specific knowledge was. Saying you are not sure of something allows others to be more tentative in the use of it, yet still might eke out some value from it. Liars destroy the work of others, but so too those who have been gulled by liars. Recognising that your knowledge is uncorroborated like thus or so is the road to becoming a team member who may actually help but, as important, not unintentionally derail.

      The first habit to be taught then, is that of examining what you think you know and how you think you know it. In inculcating such a habit and its associate critical thinking tools its almost best to leave specific errors of thinking to them. The process will achieve nothing if it isn’t entirely within their control.

      The fundaments of neuro-science relating to cognition and memory must be given in different and practical ways from as early as we can. Knowing we “see” what we expect to “see” first (hence optical and auditory illusions) and these apprehensions are contingent upon conditioning, and that memories are adapted to our latest understandings each time they are taken out and examined then put back, changed, and finally in the absence of expected data the brain naturally confabulates as best it can to create a smooth apparent experience, we can understand and better account for our own fallibilities, as witness to our own lives. Staging realistic (slightly messy and complex) dramas in a drama class has been very valuable in illustrating these kinds of points.

      (A shout out for drama classes as a general educational tool. I almost see a new subject drama/civics.)

  • Doubting Thomas

    6. Pointing out a bad belief by demonstrating it as reductio ad absurdum isn’t effective if the person already believes lots of absurd things. Most religious people fall under this category.

    • RichardSRussell

      “Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.”

      —Michael Shermer, founder of the Skeptic Society, Why People Believe Weird Things (2002)

    • Jim Jones

      On evolution, IMO you need to keep it simple.

      Ask this question of creationists:

      Why don’t all the brothers in a family have the same DNA?

      Same father. Same mother. Different DNA. Why?

      Identical twins prove it isn’t a problem. So why?

      Barring identical twins, why can you never find two people on the planet with the same DNA?

      6 billion of us, but it never happens. Why?

      (If they say “God’s mysterious plans” then their arguments are worthless).

      • Doubting Thomas

        I’m not sure I get your point. How does unique personal DNA disprove creationism?

        • Jim Jones

          Answer the questions.

        • Doubting Thomas

          1. Different gamete combinations.
          2. Same as above.
          3. Identical twins are a result of zygote separation, not gamete fusion.
          4. Because there are lots of different combinations possible.

          I still don’t see your point.

        • Jim Jones

          Why would ‘god’ do this? It’s as ridiculous as Cymothoa exigua.

        • Doubting Thomas

          I don’t know. I still don’t see how that is evidence against creationism.

        • Jim Jones

          Prove creationism is or isn’t true.

        • Doubting Thomas

          Or you could just explain to me how this is evidence against creationism.

        • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

          Why don’t YOU provide evidence *for* this ‘creationism’.

          Until I get evidence, I’m not going to believe you.

        • Greg G.

          Doubting Thomas is an atheist. He is not arguing for creationism. He is simply questioning one particular argument.

        • Doubting Thomas

          I can’t provide you with evidence for creationism because I don’t have any. I just don’t understand the point Jim was trying to make.

        • Jim Jones

          Or you could explain how it is not.

        • Doubting Thomas

          Because creationism and sexual reproduction aren’t incompatible ideas.

        • Jim Jones

          Sexual reproduction is a real thing.

          Creationism is ludicrous nonsense, i.e. religion, trying to pretend to be science.

  • Jim Jones

    The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.

    –Leo Tolstoy, 1897

  • Jim Dailey

    Perhaps you should follow your own advice on this topic.

    Dave Armstrong has now issued his 23rd refutation of various things you have posted over time.

    Yet you do not respond.

    Seems to me like you are avoiding a confrontation with facts. Scared of some backfire?

    • You clearly have no idea what the backfire effect is.

      As for Dave Armstrong, he had his chance. He made it clear that a thoughtful intellectual conversation wasn’t his goal. I’ve un-subscribed to his blog and have no interest in what he’s writing about.

      I would’ve liked to have had civil conversations back and forth, but that’s not what Dave wanted. Ah, well.

      • Jim Dailey

        I do not really know what backfire effect is. I basically read the first two paragraph of this blog, and thought how ironic it was given that Dave has posted 23 refutations and you have not responded.
        Since I have had my share of “civil conversations” in your comment boxes, and since I read the discussions between you and Dave quite closely, and since I think that you two never reached anywhere near the amount of vitriol that you appear to allow, that you seem to be rather thin skinned in your exchanges with Dave.

        • I do not really know what backfire effect is.


          I basically read the first two paragraph of this blog, and thought how ironic it was given that Dave has posted 23 refutations and you have not responded.

          Wow—a Nobel Prize-winning non sequitur. I’m in awe of what your mind does (and thankful that mine doesn’t).

          Since I have had my share of “civil conversations” in your comment boxes, and since I read the discussions between you and Dave quite closely, and since I think that you two never reached anywhere near the amount of vitriol that you appear to allow, that you seem to be rather thin skinned in your exchanges with Dave.

          Dealing with Dave is one of those “life’s just too short” kind of things. Let it go–I have.

        • Jim Dailey

          Bob to Dave:

          “I’ve got 1000+ posts here attacking your worldview. You just going to let that stand? Or could you present a helpful new perspective that I’ve ignored on one or two of those posts? . . . If I’ve misunderstood the Christian position or Christian arguments, point that out. Show me where I’ve mischaracterized them.”

          So, he has written 23 refutations of your work.

        • Uh huh. Thanks for sharing.

        • Otto

          Quit being Dave’s lackey. You and Dave need to grow up.

        • Susan

          he has written 23 refutations of your work.

          Stick around and discuss one.

          Drivebys aren’t going to do it.

    • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

      You’re apparently either unaware of Dave Armstrong’s patent dishonesty and willingness to lie & cheat to twist a narrative to make him a hero…

      OR you’re a shill.

      Either way, you’re useless.

      • Jim Dailey

        I guess it would be the first option. It seems to me Dave does a pretty good job of pointing out the flaws in Bob’s arguments.

        • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

          Dave makes a point of banning those who reply to debunk his idiocy.

        • Jim Dailey

          That’s not true. Dave has posted several long, interesting dialogues he has had with anybody – including atheists – who make a good point. The mire serious people here have actually had entire posts devoted to their comments.
          Dave bans you when you either start posting profanity laced vitriol or if you refuse to stay on topic in the discussion. I have seen the first happen frequently, and the second only once.

        • HairyEyedWordBombThrower


          I’ve seen it happen in real time.

          What you’re seeing is how Dave has twisted and warped what actually happened.

          And I can speak from personal experience, and the information that others here have imparted, that Dave is ban-happy to coddle his worthless ‘reputation’.

          Now that I think of it, you sound so much like Dave that I’m rapidly beginning to believe you’re a Dave sockpuppet.

        • Jim Dailey

          Well I have not seen him ban people who make worthwhile comments.
          Again, he has several long exchanges published as opinion pieces with some of the people who comment here regularly and who share the atheist (belief? opinion? ideology?)
          I am not Dave in disguise. I take that as a compliment though.

        • HairyEyedWordBombThrower

          “Well I have not seen him ban people who make worthwhile comments.”

          Your sockpuppet is fraying…

        • Otto

          >>>”I take that as a compliment though.”

          There are many people that look up to people with personality disorders, that isn’t something to be proud of.

          I find it interesting that Dave is going around the non-religious blogs all of a sudden pointing out how Bob is ignoring him. Dave is complaining that Bob banned him, of course Dave fails to mention that Dave banned Bob first and it was only after all that that Dave started his screeds. He is complaining that Bob is not answering his posts, that behavior is a bit sociopathic, and now you are acting the part of his shill to come on here and carry his flag. That is about all we need to know about the both of you.

        • Pofarmer

          The only thing that a blog war with Bob would do is give Dave more exposure. I see absolutely no reason for Bob to do that. None.

        • Greg G.

          Dave was given the chance to make his arguments here but he couldn’t handle having an opponent that he couldn’t ban.

        • Pofarmer

          His inner dick came out. It was rather unseemly.

        • Otto

          He makes Sham the Flim Flam man look downright civil.

        • Otto

          I wouldn’t recommend it either. I have seen my fair share of arrogant, condescending Catholics in my time in the culture, but Dave is at the top of that list, and I have seen my fair share of assholes in general, and Dave ranks on that one too.

        • Pofarmer

          Yeah, he’s a two fer. You forgot ignorant. That would be a hat trick.

        • Agreed. I’d feel bad about giving him clicks.

        • Pofarmer

          Of course you won’t see him ban people who make worthwhile comments, because he will edit or delete the comments in question. They guy is a two bit asshole.

        • Nonsense! I know Dave is a sterling figure from reading the Wikipedia page on him (that he edited).

        • epeeist

          I know Dave is a sterling figure from reading the Wikipedia page on him (that he edited).

          It is always worthwhile reading Talk page on Wikipedia articles.

        • It makes for fun reading!

          Who would’ve guessed that Dave would do such a thing? I mean, it’s so unlike him.

        • HairyEyedWordBombThrower


        • MR

          Yeah, I was beginning to suspect that, too. Jim seems to have an awful lot invested in Dave. Weird.

        • I’ve been banned twice. I wonder which was my transgression.

        • Otto

          I was banned for refuting a claim Dave made and I gave citations. He bans when he doesn’t like the implications of the point being made. He is as dishonest of a blogger as I have ever seen. I see no reason why he should not be ignored. He is petty, condescending and really just an asshole.

          >>>”Dave bans you when you either start posting profanity laced vitriol or if you refuse to stay on topic in the discussion.”

          Grimlock was banned for none of that…and you damn well know that too. So now you are part of Dave’s lies.

        • Jim Dailey

          No one would ever think you were an asshole Otto.

        • Otto

          You get what you give from me. I honestly initially tried to have a nice discussion with Dave, as have many here. Dave showed up on this blog and after a couple nice back on forth’s he invited me and some others to continue the discussion on his blog. We obliged, I didn’t swear at him, I stayed on topic and Dave turned into an asshole…yeah I can be an asshole too, but I don’t (and I didn’t) throw the first punch. I fully admit I have nothing but contempt for Dave because of how he treated me personally and how I have seen him treat many, many others, it is well deserved.

          You go back and read Grimlock’s discussions with Dave… and then honestly tell me who acted like an asshole and who stayed on topic and was civil….and it did not matter one bit, Grimlock got banned.

        • Susan

          it did not matter one bit, Grimlock got banned.

          And countless others before him.

          Dave developed a terrible reputation long before he wandered over here.


          Just for some examples.

        • Michael Neville

          Some months ago Dave quoted one of my posts from this blog on his and then critiqued it. He informed me that he was doing that and invited me to comment on his blog. I made two posts, did not use any foul language, sarcasm or anything objectionable, and I was banned after the second comment. No reason was given for the banning.

          So I’m not impressed by Dave Armstrong. He claims he only bans people for being jerks. Apparently disagreeing with Dave is being a jerk.

        • Pofarmer

          Look. Dude. Dave is lying to you. It’s really that simple. Dave has even banned people for what they posted on OTHER blogs. not his own. Dave is a thin skinned bully who won’t allow criticism or comments that make him look the opinionated egotistical trash he is. That’s the truth.

        • Grimlock

          Dave bans you when you either start posting profanity laced vitriol or if you refuse to stay on topic in the discussion. I have seen the first happen frequently, and the second only once.

          Really? Since you seem to have such a good overview, perhaps you could tell me why I got banned? Feel free to be specific.

        • Susan

          It seems to me Dave does a pretty good job of pointing out the flaws in Bob’s arguments.

          Then, you should have no trouble pointing out those flaws here, Jim.

          I suspect you won’t stick around and follow through on discussion.

          But here’s hoping.

          What are the flaws?

    • Michael Neville

      It’s kind of hard for Bob to respond to Dave when Dave has banned Bob from Dave’s blog.

      • Susan

        It’s kind of hard for Bob to respond to Dave when Dave has banned Bob from Dave’s blog

        Bizarre, isn’t it?

    • Susan

      Seems to me like you are avoiding a confrontation with facts.

      For the record, it’s been 8 days since you made that accusation, you were asked to participate in discussion (as you always have been), you didn’t accept the invitation (as usual) and you scurried back to Dave’s cave to report that everyone here is a big scaredycat who doesn’t understand Dave’s interpretation of a “mustard seed” text which was written two milennia ago and on which Dave claims to have the right understanding of the context.

      Without justification.

      Who exactly is avoiding a confrontation with facts again?

  • Pofarmer

    Ok. Waaaayyyyyy off topic.

    But this, is remarkably cool.

    Scientists Have Connected The Brains of 3 People, Enabling Them to Share Thoughts


    • Phil Rimmer

      I’ve been part of an extensive team to do entirely this at astonishingly high data rates. In effect a smart socket has been created with a not too shabby data rate of about 1Mbs. By pre-encoding information in a learnable routine and by learning to decode it, virtually any kind of thought can be transferred from my head to yours as you can see here.

      Whole head transfers will never be a thing. What is needed is sockets, newly created or hijacked. “Projecting” onto visual and auditory corteces which are already spatially organised will be the way to add quickly introduce complex information. (Birds get their magnetometer data injected at the retina, very probably making seemless singular sensations. The “tiger stripe” alternation of our left and right visual fields on the visual cortex allows the inferencing of data between the two in the next inferencing layer up to create the informative stereoscopic sensation. The wash of magnetic sensing over visual will happen in the same way.)

      Sockets are naturally created in the young enough. In tadpoles the optic nerve routed to the auditory region creates seeing frogs. We are starting to understand how it is data and the form it takes that drives neural structure through evolution and through an evolutionary type process in early experience.

      Totally new rather than merely hijacked sockets may be creatable with topical application of stem cells. But there will still be a missing back-plane circuitry to distribute sensation usefully. Between 6 and 18 months brains grow wildly creating a huge area of over connected (mostly) white matter. Everything potentially can talk to everything else. This makes for being a two year old a confusing and upsetting time. Experience sculpts away at this, mostly in the next 5 years, allowing the most useful parallel experiencing and subsequent meta data to be formed, creating a singular “bound” experience. (Sculpt away too little and you end up with synaesthesia, too much and maybe you end up with me unable to recognise some specific facial expressions.) These associative corteces may be the root of our ability to form metaphor and abstract concepts out of positive and negative body experiences.

      Whilst we may make new sockets with topical stem cells and some specific genes, tapping into a useful brain wide network may require us to be reduced to the state of toddlers for a while.

  • Dan Dupree

    Is this entire comment string hijacked? I and most of us have disregarded this thread, though this article deserves discussion.
    Please get you’re own fucking blogs.
    Sorry kids, I don’t care who blocked who nor about your fucking brain linked tadpoles.

  • Gary Whittenberger

    “Instead of a pile of arguments, give just a few key arguments that make the point clearly and painlessly.”

    GW: I recommend “two” rather than “a few.” So, if somebody employs the Gish Gallop, say “I don’t have the time to debunk all my opponents’ points here, so I will just pick two and show how they don’t work.”

    GW: Also try to find some common ground.