Debunking myths in the era of alternative facts

If you’ve been paying even the slightest bit of attention to Donald Trump’s first few days as President of the United States, you’ll have heard of the term ‘alternative facts’.

Invented by Trump’s ‘counselor’ and former campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, the term was created to defend White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s claim that Trump’s inauguration enjoyed “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration – period – both in person and around the globe.”

Here’s the moment she invented the term:

An alternative fact is a lie, or more politely, falsehood or a myth.

Despite the progress we’ve made since Aristotle first invented the scientific method, our world today is not solely inhabited by proponents of rationality and evidence-based fact.

Alternative facts, or myths, as they are more commonly known, infect nearly every area of scientific discourse, and medicine is no exception. Let myths fester unchallenged; they can become entrenched, especially when vested interests are involved.

When promoting healthcare, debunking myths can be necessary, but what’s the best way to do it?

If there’s one scientific discipline that’s had an abundance of debunking to do, it is atmospheric science; or, what is more commonly known as the science of climate change.

Climate scientists (and the rest of us as a consequence) have been besieged by the most insidious disinformation campaigns driven by vested interests in the fossil-fuel energy dependence status quo. Therefore, climate scientists have worked hard to refine their approach to debunking myths, perhaps more than any other group of scientists.

One such website aimed at debunking climate change myths is Skeptical Science which has published The Debunking Handbook. The authors start with a warning:

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.

It’s excellent advice, though many don’t heed it. Let’s take laser eye surgery as an example. Here’s a web page published by All About Vision, that lands first on the Google Search Engine Result Page for the keyword phrase “laser eye surgery myths.”

laser eye surgery myths

Click the image to enlarge

As advertised, this page reports the most commonly held laser eye surgery myths. The page aligns with some of the scientifically proven advice suggested by The Debunking Handbook with regards to debunking myths, but it could do better. For example,

  1. First, the refutation is organised around the myths instead of the core facts.
  2. Second, the page content makes a distinction between a myth and a fact in the text, but the layout separating these could be much clearer to the visitor.
  3. The page does not include an alternative explanation that accounts for important qualities in the original misinformation.

Many clinics and surgeons have similar pages to this on their website. Interestingly, Google Analytics tells us they can be popular pages.

So how would we make a better debunking myths page for laser eye surgery blindness?

Here’s where The Debunking Handbook can be very handy indeed. They suggest that an anatomy of an effective debunking looks like this:

  1. Present only core facts

    You should emphasise the facts in a refutation, not the myth. You should only give key facts to avoid what they call an “Overkill Backfire Effect” (evidence suggests that too many facts will further entrench someone in their pre-existing belief and will backfire).

  2. Explicitly warn of upcoming misinformation

    Before you mention a myth, you should inform the reader that the upcoming information is false, with text or visual cues.

  3. Offer an alternative explanation

    Fill any gaps left by the debunking. You can achieve this by providing an alternative causal explanation for why the myth is wrong and, optionally, why the misinformers promoted the myth in the first place.

  4. Use graphics

    Display your core facts graphically if possible because they are less likely to be subject to interpretation.

The following example debunks the myth that laser eye surgery has a significant risk of leading to blindness.

Laser eye surgery blindness

Click the image to enlarge

Debunk one myth at a time

Debunking myths is a complicated business and it’s hard enough getting people to unlearn one thing when compared to unlearning more than one misconception. That’s why we suggest that you debunk one myth at a time. Pages like these avoid overloading the visitor with too much to unlearn at once.

With thanks to laser eye surgeon Glenn Carp for providing the facts used (in the graphic above) in the video below.

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Rod Solar

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Rod co-founded LiveseySolar and acts as a Fractional CMO for our customers. He’s on a mission to help transform the lives of 10,000 people with vision correction surgery by 2024. To achieve that, he inspires his customers to make confident decisions that will help 50,000 people take the first step towards vision correction.

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Laura Livesey is the co-founder & CEO of LiveseySolar. She has developed powerful refractive surgery marketing systems that increase patient volumes and profits for doctors, clinics, and hospitals, since 1997.

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— Prof. Dan Reinstein, MD MA FRSC DABO, founder of the London Vision Clinic, UK