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We’ve been misinformed

Put this eight-page debunking handbook on the top of your reading list, and let’s stop making consumer misinformation worse

The good news is that farmers are finally recognizing the damage that misinformation is doing to our industry, and we are responding to it.

The bad news is that the way we respond may actually be increasing consumer opposition rather than alleviating it. We’ve been misinformed about fighting misinformation.

Agriculture is not the only industry to be threatened by misinformation. It is merely the latest, so it is important to look at how misinformation has affected others and how they have responded.

A good case study is the controversy about vaccinations and autism. The claim that vaccinations cause autism was first made about 18 years ago based on a single study of just 12 children in the U.K. Further clinical studies refuted the correlation, the medical journal that published the original study retracted it, and the doctor involved in the study lost his licence to practise medicine.

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Yet today an estimated one-third of U.S. parents believe that vaccines are linked to autism, which is why measles, once nearly eradicated, have returned.

In this case, the response to misinformation has been totally ineffective.

There are a number of reasons why people cling to misinformation and why they do not want to give up their opinions, even when those opinions are scientifically discredited.

First, no one likes being wrong, so people will seek out information (i.e. misinformation) which proves they have been right all along. This is “confirmation bias.”

Also, it is often easier to get misinformation that reinforces your beliefs than it is to search out the truth about an issue or practice. This is particularly true if the misinformation is delivered by social media you subscribe to or by a public figure such as an actor or politician, and it is especially easy to fall for individuals who portray themselves as informed outsiders who are willing to challenge the corrupted establishment or corporate system, which they claim is only interested in profits, not the consumer.

It adds up to this. Confirmation bias can rarely be overturned with facts, data or evidence. People will simply discount all the evidence that disproves the misinformation they are using as the basis of their world view, and they will embrace any “information” they have found or heard that supports their world view and beliefs.

Research has actually studied the conundrum that this produces. Our efforts to use verified facts, research and data to set the record straight can actually cause people to deepen their belief in the misinformation that we are trying to attack.

This is known as the “backfire effect.”

Then it gets worse. Once the misinformation is firmly entrenched, we tend to look at and treat those holding such beliefs as idiots or a radical fringe, and this polarization further divides and encourages those who believe in the misinformation to spread their misbeliefs, thereby greatly reducing the chances of correcting the misinformation in the future.

Another trap we fall into when attempting to refute misinformation is by repeating that misinformation when we try to refute it. Every time misinformation is repeated, there is the possibility you are introducing that misinformation to people unaware of the misinformation in the first place.

Research has found if a falsehood is repeated just three times, up to 40 per cent of people will remember it and believe it to be true.

Possibly the step which most people ignore in fighting misinformation is to provide any alternative to the misinformation.

The Debunking Handbook

bookcover-debunking-handbookDr. Stephan Lewandowsky, University of Bristol, U.K., says providing a narrative is a critical step. “It is not enough to debunk the myths, you need to provide an alternative that will fill the gap if misinformation is to be accepted as untrue. Explain the false information and the agenda of those pushing it. The most effective way to reduce the effect of misinformation is to provide an alternative explanation for the events covered by the misinformation.”

According to Lewandowsky, the other critical step is: “beware of a person’s world view. For example, understand that those opposed to GMOs have natural, environmental, and purity goals. You cannot attack these values. Instead you have to deal with the science behind GMO.”

In the case of GMOs, given the resulting increased use of glyphosate, and now the development of glyphosate-resistant weeds, Lewandowsky suggests farmers acknowledge that GMO crops have resulted in excessive use of glyphosate which has resulted in development of glyphosate resistance. He says a GMO supporter who begins a conversation with someone opposed to GMO by conceding this point will improve trustworthiness of the GMO proponent and make the person opposed to GMO more willing to reconsider their GMO position.

When asked who are the best to address misinformation about GMOs, Lewandowsky replied: “Those who people trust. Not Monsanto! Instead it should be independent university scientists who are not funded by corporate interests. It should be farmers who use GMO technology.”

Lewandowsky says farmers who address a misinformation issue like GMO should focus on discrediting misinformation with friends and family first. He recommends talking to those who are on the fence about an issue like GMOs rather than those firmly opposed to the technology. “There is very little to be gained by trying to change the position of hardcore believers in misinformation.”

However, Lewandowsky says it is very important to expose those hardcore believers and the reasons they have for promoting misinformation. Are they promoting misinformation for personal financial gain, for the fame, or perhaps for political reasons?

Lewandowsky has written The Debunking Handbook, an eight-page guide to why people believe misinformation and how best to debunk misinformation. He opens with:

“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 Debunking Handbook should be read by everyone interested in challenging the misinformation that plagues the agricultural industry. It can be found online here as a downloadable pdf.

What works on your farm

Dr. Jason Lusk is a food and agricultural economist at Oklahoma State University, and he researches what we eat and why we eat it.

Lusk is concerned about the disparity between the beliefs of farmers and researchers versus the general public. He believes the problem is that two trends have emerged at the same time. First, North Americans have become less trusting of institutions. Second, there is a much greater diversity of information available to consumers, so people seek out what they want to hear rather than facts.

Lusk says there used to be a shared assumption that the experts have all the knowledge, so if the experts simply presented consumers with the information, then everything would come out right. But today, he says, that is not nearly as effective.

Instead, Lusk applauds farmers who actually engage consumers in conversations on a one-to-one basis about food safety and environmental concerns over modern farming practices.

Lusk urges farmers to listen to the concerns of consumers and respond by explaining how you actually address those concerns on your farm. For example, if in a conversation a consumer says, “I am concerned about… ” the farmer’s response should be, “I am concerned about that too, and this is how we handle that on our farm… ”

This response can apply to any issue from environmental concerns, to GMOs, to antibiotic resistance, to pesticide use.

Lusk says while science is important, it is not always persuasive. Responding to consumer concerns by quoting the latest scientific journal to justify a farming practice likely will not work. Instead, farmers should tell their own story and focus on why you do what you do.

Getting it right

A useful summary of the strategies that can be used on your farm can be found in a 2012 news release from the University of Michigan entitled “New study analyzes why people are resistant to correcting misinformation, offers solutions”:

  • Focus on the facts you want to highlight, rather than the myths.
  • Make sure that the information you want people to take away is simple and brief.
  • Consider your audience and the beliefs they are likely to hold.
  • Strengthen your message through repetition.
  • Provide people with a narrative that replaces the gap left by false information.

Colorado State University has also published a fact sheet entitled Nutrition Misinformation: How to Identify Fraud and Misleading Claims. It lists the top 10 red flags for misleading claims in nutrition.

  1. Recommendations that promise a quick fix.
  2. Dire warnings of danger from a single product or regimen.
  3. Claims that sound too good to be true.
  4. Simplistic conclusions drawn from a complex study.
  5. Recommendations based on a single study.
  6. Dramatic statements that are refuted by reputable scientific organizations.
  7. Lists of “good” and “bad” foods.
  8. “Spinning” information from another product to match the producer’s claims.
  9. Stating that research is “currently underway,” indicating that there is no current research.
  10. Non-science-based testimonials supporting the product, often from celebrities or highly satisfied customers.

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