A debunker is a person who attempts to expose or discredit claims believed to be false, exaggerated or pretentious. The term is often associated with skeptical investigation of controversial topics such as U.F.O.s, claimed paranormal phenomena, cryptids, conspiracy theories, alternative medicine, religion, or exploratory or fringe areas of scientific or pseudoscientific research.
According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, to "debunk" is defined as:
- To expose the falseness or hollowness of (a myth, idea, or belief).
- To reduce the inflated reputation of (someone), esp. by ridicule: "comedy takes delight in debunking heroes".
If debunkers are not careful, their communications may backfire – increasing an audience's long-term belief in myths. Backfire effects can occur if a message spends too much time on the negative case, if it is too complex, or if the message is threatening.
- Etymology 1
- Backfire effects 2
- Notable debunkers 3
- Organizations 4
- See also 5
- Notes 6
The American Heritage Dictionary traces the passage of the words bunk (noun), debunk (verb) and debunker (noun) into American English in 1923 as a belated outgrowth of "bunkum", of which the first recorded use was in 1828, apparently related to a poorly received "speech for Buncombe County, North Carolina" given by North Carolina representative Felix Walker during the 16th United States Congress (1819–1821).
The term "debunkery" is not limited to arguments about scientific validity; it is also used in a more general sense at attempts to discredit any opposing point of view, such as that of a political opponent.
Australian Professorial Fellow Stephan Lewandowsky and John Cook, Climate Communication Fellow for the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland (and author at SkepticalScience.com) co-wrote Debunking Handbook, in which they warn that debunking efforts may backfire. Backfire effects occur when science communicators accidentally reinforce false beliefs by trying to correct them.
Cook and Lewandowsky offer possible solutions to the backfire effects as described in different psychological studies. They recommend spending little or no time describing misconceptions because people cannot help but remember ideas that they have heard before. They write "Your goal is to increase people's familiarity with the facts." They recommend providing fewer and clearer arguments, considering that more people recall a message when it is simpler and easier to read. "Less is more" is especially important because scientific truths can get overwhelmingly detailed; pictures, graphs, and memorable tag lines all help keep things simple.
The authors write that debunkers should try to build up people's egos in some way before confronting false beliefs because it is difficult to consider ideas that threaten one's worldviews (i.e., threatening ideas cause cognitive dissonance). It is also advisable to avoid words with negative connotations. The authors describe studies which have shown that people abhor incomplete explanations – they write "In the absence of a better explanation, [people] opt for the wrong explanation". It is important to fill in conceptual gaps, and to explain the cause of the misconception in the first place. The authors believe these techniques can reduce the odds of a "backfire" – that an attempt to debunk bad science will increase the audience's belief in misconceptions.
- Stephen Barrett founded Quackwatch and writes on medical quackery.
- Brian Dunning produces the podcast Skeptoid.
- Stanton Friedman has debunked both supposed UFO cases and debunking attempts on other UFO cases.
- Martin Gardner was a mathematics and science writer who extensively debunked parapsychology in his magazine articles and books.
- Harry Houdini debunked spiritualists.
- Ray Hyman is a psychologist who is known for debunking some parapsychological studies.
- Philip Klass was a pioneer in the field of skeptical investigation of UFOs.
- Donald Menzel was Philip Klass' predecessor in debunking UFOs.
- Joe Nickell writes regularly for the Skeptical Inquirer.
- Penn & Teller are an entertainment team who often demystify magic tricks and illusions. They have also debunked many other aspects of popular belief on their show, Penn & Teller: Bullshit!.
- Dorothy Dietrich a professional magician and Houdini expert and historian. Has been put in charge of Houdini's grave site, and is the founder of The Houdini Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania.
- Phil Plait is an astronomer and science writer who debunks astrology and end-of-the-world scenarios.
- James Randi has exposed faith healers, psychics and others claiming to have paranormal powers.
- Carl Sagan was a noted astronomer who debunked purported close encounters such as the Betty and Barney Hill abduction, and pseudoscience such as Immanuel Velikovsky's Worlds in Collision.
- The Skeptics Society, and editor-in-chief of the group's magazine, Skeptic.
- Laurent Bossavit, author of The Leprechauns of Software Engineering, regularly challenges and investigates some of the "ground truths" of the software profession.
- Committee for Skeptical Inquiry
- The Skeptics Society
- The MythBusters, a program on the Discovery Channel. Two former special effects technicians, Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage, use modern technology to test the validity of urban legends.
- The National Institute of Standards and Technology debunked the World Trade Center controlled demolition conspiracy theories.
- Popular Mechanics has released several publications also debunking 9/11 conspiracy theories, in particular those mentioned in Loose Change.
- Snopes debunks or validates urban legends.
- The website Bad Astronomy, by astronomer Phil Plait, debunks astrology and other myths related to the sky.
- James Randi Educational Foundation
- "to expose or excoriate (a claim, assertion, sentiment, etc.) as being pretentious, false, or exaggerated: to debunk advertising slogans."
- Cognitive Science Laboratories, University of Western Australia Website, accessed Dec 2011
- About Skeptical Science, Skeptical Science website, retrieved Dec 2011
- "Area parents seek answer for Autism", The Times Leader, April 1, 2002, "That is coincidence, said Dr. Stephen Barrett of Allentown, a veteran debunker and operator of Quackwatch.com."
- Houdini and the spiritualists, Summit Daily News, November 3, 2007, "Houdini himself wouldn’t have believed in his second coming anyway, because he didn’t believe in spirit manifestations. In fact, he spent much of his life and career debunking spiritualists and mediums — an admirable mission that history and forensic specialists now tell us probably led to his untimely death at the age of 52."
- "Pseudoscience, Skepticism To Make A Close Encounter", Seattle Times, June 12, 1994
- Review/Theater; "Penn and Teller Offer Several Variations On a Magic Theme", New York Times, April 4, 1991, "As debunkers, they seek to remove the mystique from magic, to demonstrate the digitation behind the presti."
- The wizard gets a windfall—even the Amazing Randi needs advice on how to keep his $272,000 prize from vanishing, CNN Money, September 1, 1986, "Randi began his campaign against fakes in earnest in 1964, during a stint as the host of a radio talk show in Manhattan. He had become disturbed by the number of listeners phoning in with such flummery as tales of self-styled clairvoyants' uncannily correct forecasts. Gradually, his work as a debunker began to rival his show-business career, gathering momentum in the early 1970s, when Uri Geller caught Randi's attention."
- "Obituaries; Betty Hill, 85; Claim of Abduction by Aliens Led to Fame", Los Angeles Times, Oct 24, 2004, "Carl Sagan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning astronomer, was among the Hills' debunkers, yet he considered their story noteworthy."