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A debunker is a person or organization that exposes or discredits claims believed to be false, exaggerated, or pretentious.[1] The term is often associated with skeptical investigation of controversial topics such as UFOs, 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 sham or falseness of."[2] The New Oxford American Dictionary defines "debunk" as "expose the falseness or hollowness of (a myth, idea, or belief)".[3]

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.[4]


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).[5]

The term "debunk" originated in a 1923 novel Bunk, by American journalist and popular historian William Woodward (1874–1950), who used it to mean to "take the bunk out of things".[6]

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.

Notable debunkers[edit]


  • Cicero debunked divination in his philosophical treatise De Divinatione in 44 BCE.
  • Sextus Empiricus debunked the claims of astrologers and dogmatic philosophers (c. 160 CE)
  • Lucian wrote a book named Alexander the False Prophet against mystic and oracle Alexander of Abonoteichus (c. 105 – c. 170 CE) who led the Glycon cult then widely popular in the Roman Empire. He described Alexander's alleged miracles as tricks, including the appearance of the god Glycon being an elaborate puppet.[7] Lucian also describes him as using thuggery against critics to silence them, including himself.[8]


Notable organizations[edit]

Backfire effects[edit]

The authors of the Debunking Handbook warn that a failed debunking can actually worsen misconceptions. They recommend simple, positive, and emotionally sensitive education (e.g., bolstering the learner's ego, or avoiding threatening words).

Australian Professorial Fellow Stephan Lewandowsky[39] and John Cook, Climate Communication Fellow for the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland (and author at Skeptical Science)[40] co-wrote Debunking Handbook,[4] in which they warn that debunking efforts may backfire. Backfire effects occur when science communicators accidentally reinforce false beliefs by trying to correct them,[41] a phenomenon known as belief perseverance.[42][43]

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."[4][44][45] 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.[4][46]

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[4][47] (i.e., threatening ideas cause cognitive dissonance). It is also advisable to avoid words with negative connotations.[4][48] 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.[4][49] 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.

The Debunking Handbook, 2020, explains that "backfire effects occur only occasionally and the risk of occurrence is lower in most situations than once thought". The authors recommend to "not refrain from attempting to debunk or correct misinformation out of fear that doing so will backfire or increase beliefs in false information".[50]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Debunker". Dictionary.com Unabridged. Retrieved September 26, 2007. "to expose or excoriate (a claim, assertion, sentiment, etc.) as being pretentious, false, or exaggerated: to debunk advertising slogans."
  2. ^ "Definition of debunk". Merriam-webster.com. Retrieved January 8, 2017.
  3. ^ The New Oxford American Dictionary, second edition, 2005
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Cook, J.; Lewandowsky, S. (2011). The Debunking Handbook (PDF). St. Lucia, Australia: University of Queensland. ISBN 978-0646568126. OCLC 768864362.
  5. ^ "debunk". The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.). Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 2000. Archived from the original on April 6, 2008.
  6. ^ Woodward, William (1923). Bunk. Harper & Brothers. ISBN 978-0306708466.
  7. ^ Joseph Hilarius Eckhel, Doctrma Nummorum veterum, ii. pp. 383, 384
  8. ^ "Alexander the False Prophet," translated with annotation by A. M. Harmon, Loeb Classical Library, 1936. [1]
  9. ^ "Area parents seek answer for Autism", Times Leader, April 1, 2002, "That is coincidence, said Dr. Stephen Barrett of Allentown, a veteran debunker and operator of Quackwatch.com."
  10. ^ "Adam Ruins Facebook…. On Facebook - the Shorty Awards".
  11. ^ "Houdini Museum". Retrieved January 22, 2011.
  12. ^ Williams, Michael. "TNSJournal". Archived from the original on October 22, 2015. Retrieved October 29, 2014.
  13. ^ Weiss, Eric (August 5, 2011). "10 To Start: Skeptoid". Skepticsonthe.net. Archived from the original on January 8, 2017. Retrieved January 8, 2017.
  14. ^ "Skeptoid in Chinese!". Doubtfulnews.com. Archived from the original on October 27, 2016. Retrieved January 8, 2017.
  15. ^ Dickinson, Terence. "The Zeta Reticuli Incident". NICAP.org. Retrieved January 8, 2017.
  16. ^ a b c d e f g h "'Skeptical Inquirer' Magazine Names the Ten Outstanding Skeptics of the Century". Archived from the original on March 25, 2008. Retrieved January 8, 2017.
  17. ^ "Skeptical Connections: Susan Gerbic". Archived from the original on May 2, 2014. Retrieved January 8, 2017.
  18. ^ "Wikapediatrician Susan Gerbic discusses her Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia project". CSICOP.org. The Center for Inquiry. March 8, 2013. Retrieved January 8, 2017.
  19. ^ Coyne, Jerry (January 21, 2016). "E! about to debut new show starring a psychic 'grief vampire' ". Wordpress.com. Retrieved January 8, 2017.
  20. ^ "Grief Vampires Don't Come Out Only at Night". CSICOP.org. The Center for Inquiry. January 20, 2016. Retrieved January 8, 2017.
  21. ^ Hitt, Jack (February 26, 2019). "Inside the Secret Sting Operations to Expose Celebrity Psychics". New York Times. Archived from the original on February 26, 2019. Retrieved February 26, 2019.
  22. ^ Kirkey, Sharon (April 4, 2016). "Should naturopaths be restricted from treating children after tragic death of Alberta toddler?". National Post. Retrieved December 3, 2017.
  23. ^ 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."
  24. ^ "Pseudoscience, Skepticism To Make A Close Encounter", Seattle Times, June 12, 1994
  25. ^ Blevins, Joe (June 7, 2016). "Beakman and Captain Disillusion debunk those "free energy" machines". A.V. Club. Onion Inc. Retrieved January 8, 2017.
  26. ^ Review/Theater; "Penn and Teller Offer Several Variations On a Magic Theme", The New York Times, April 4, 1991, "As debunkers, they seek to remove the mystique from magic, to demonstrate the digitation behind the presti."
  27. ^ "Moon Hoax Spurs Crusade Against Bad Astronomy". The New York Times. January 11, 2001. Retrieved January 8, 2017.
  28. ^ "James Randi Educational Foundation Names New President". Archive.randi.org. Retrieved November 3, 2017.
  29. ^ "NECSS Conference: Phil Plait – The Final Epsilon". Youtube.com. November 27, 2013. Retrieved January 8, 2017.
  30. ^ Johannes Quack (2011). Disenchanting India: Organized Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India. Oxford University Press. pp. 98–99, 101. ISBN 978-0199812608. Retrieved June 27, 2013.
  31. ^ a b Datta, Tanya (June 17, 2004). "Sai Baba: God-man or con man?". BBC. Retrieved December 3, 2017.
  32. ^ Sushil Rao (April 25, 2011). "His harshest critics died with a wish unfulfilled". The Times of India. Archived from the original on September 28, 2013. Retrieved November 3, 2017.
  33. ^ "An Indian Skeptic's explanation of miracles". Mukto Mona. Retrieved November 3, 2017.
  34. ^ 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."
  35. ^ Radford, Benjamin (2014). Mysterious New Mexico. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press. ISBN 978-0826354501.
  36. ^ Radford, Benjamin (September–October 2007), "Santa Fe 'Courthouse Ghost' Mystery Solved", Skeptical Inquirer, vol. 31, no. 5, Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, retrieved April 10, 2013
  37. ^ "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."
  38. ^ "Power Balance Tests". YouTube. TodayTonight. January 31, 2010. Retrieved June 17, 2020.
  39. ^ "Stephan Lewandowsky". psy.uwa.edu.au. Cognitive Science Laboratories, University of Western Australia. Archived from the original on November 25, 2011. Retrieved December 15, 2011.
  40. ^ "About". skepticalscience.com. Skeptical Science. Retrieved December 15, 2011.
  41. ^ Silverman, Craig (June 17, 2011). "The Backfire Effect: More on the press’s inability to debunk bad information". Columbia Journalism Review, Columbia University (New York City).
  42. ^ Baumeister, R. F., ed. (2007). Encyclopedia of Social Psychology. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. pp. 109–110. ISBN 978-1412916707.
  43. ^ Beveridge, W. I. B. (1950). The Art of Scientific Investigation. New York: Norton. p. 106.
  44. ^ Skurnik, I.; Yoon, C.; Park, D.; Schwarz, N. (2005). "How warnings about false claims become recommendations". Journal of Consumer Research. 31 (4): 713–724. doi:10.1086/426605. S2CID 145120950.
  45. ^ Weaver, K.; Garcia, S.M.; Schwarz, N.; Miller, D.T. (2007). "Inferring the popularity of an opinion from its familiarity: A repetitive voice sounds like a chorus". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 92 (5): 821–833. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.92.5.821. PMID 17484607.
  46. ^ Schwarz, N.; Sanna, L.; Skurnik, I.; Yoon, C. (2007). Metacognitive experiences and the intricacies of setting people straight: Implications for debiasing and public information campaigns. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. Vol. 39. pp. 127–161. doi:10.1016/S0065-2601(06)39003-X. ISBN 978-0120152391.
  47. ^ Nyhan, Brendan; Reifler, Jason (June 2010). "When corrections fail: the persistence of political misperceptions". Political Behavior. 32 (2): 303–330. doi:10.1007/s11109-010-9112-2. S2CID 10715114. Pdf. Archived July 30, 2014, at the Wayback Machine
  48. ^ Hardisty, D.J.; Johnson, E.J.; Weber, E.U. (1999). "A dirty word or a dirty world?: Attribute framing, political affiliation, and query theory". Psychological Science. 21 (1): 86–92. doi:10.1177/0956797609355572. PMID 20424028. S2CID 6588052.
  49. ^ Ecker, U.K.; Lewandowsky, S.; Tang, D.T. (2011). "Explicit warnings reduce but do not eliminate the continued influence of misinformation". Memory & Cognition. 38 (8): 1087–1100. doi:10.3758/MC.38.8.1087. PMID 21156872.
  50. ^ Lewandowsky, Stephan (2020). Debunking Handbook. Databrary. doi:10.17910/b7.1182.