Debunking best practices

Like many, I sometime engage in debunking mis-information an/or propaganda.

This is a thankless activity, as I often end up as the target of haters and propagandists with ad hominem attacks and straight insults to the point friends are asking me “Why on Earth do you engage with these people? Their motives are often not sincere, and when they are they, are very far from rationality. It’s a discussion you can’t win, and costs you a lot of mental energy”.

The answer is simple: I always think of my kids. All three are grown-ups now, and are very aware of the Internet being a place rife with do-no-gooders who are against Science, sometimes because it’s beyond their comprehension, sometimes because they have an axe to grind, sometimes because they’re engaged in propaganda, plain and simple.

But go back 10-15 years, when they were younger: how would have I reacted if one of their school teachers were a tinfoil hat lunatic and told them the Earth is flat? Would I have sat back thinking “This is none of my business” or “You can’t reason with someone who’s barking mad”?

Of course not (IT IS my business, these are MY children!) and I think all of us would do the same thing (except if I have a reader that’s belonging in the tinfoil hat community, that is).

But I think we must also be aware of the risk facing many parents confronted with a petulant child that keeps asking “Why?” to any successive explanation, the temptation of closing the conversation with “Because I say so !”

So here are my golden principles when debunking:

  1. Stick to your guns – nobody can be credible in every field of human knowledge so you should stick to subjects where you have strong credentials. My topics of choice are:
    • Nuclear Power
    • Electric Mobility
    • Energy Strategy
    • Energy Transition to Renewables.
    • This does not mean I don’t discuss other matters such as local or international politics or football, but when I do, I am conscious I am what Deming calls “Just another man with his opinion” and, as Harry Callahan says…
  2. Know who your target audience is – you would NOT discuss with the teacher, but with his/her pupils; similarly, online you’re not discussing with the person spreading mis-information, but with his/her silent readers (in the ’70s we used to call them “lurkers”); for example, avoid calling people names, as this will encourage lurkers to read on, knowing they won’t just be dragged into another pointless exchange of insults.
  3. Respect your audience – by providing the full logical reasoning which leads to your conclusion AND offering (linking) as many credible sources as you can. The reader won’t necessarily follow all the links, but the fact you’re offering them shows you’re not afraid of them conducting their own little investigation. Note to media: simply inviting an expert and only allowing him/her to say “This is hogwash!” is NOT enough.
  4. Pick your sources – in Italian we have an old adage: “Don’t ask the innkeeper if his wine is good”. Sources should be as neutral and independent as possible: a post commenting on official data is always less credible than the data itself. When I comment on the Energy Transition, I try to avoid (whenever possible) linking articles from magazines or websites who are explicitly pro-renewables. Of course, a sub-optimal source link is better than no link at all, so sometimes you have to make compromises…
  5. Keep an archive – myths and propaganda come in waves. I have found myself repeating the same arguments over and over again, so in the interest of time (and mental sanity) I keep an archive of my debunking posts and sometimes simply respond with a link.
  6. Use visuals – we all understand a good chart, and in these years I have built a library of over 150 infographics; don’t fret over lack of crediting; you can /like I do) watermark your charts with a discreet attribution note. Remember to link sources also in the chart, because it will travel without your accompanying text.

I will publish this article on LinkedIn, inviting commentary by people who engage in debunking in a much more authoritative way than myself who might have a few more principles to contribute.

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