Debunkers Beware, All Publicity is Good Publicity
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Categories: Modern

Debunkers Beware, All Publicity is Good Publicity

if you are a little different, or a little outrageous, or if you do things that are bold or controversial, the press is going to write about you. The funny thing is that even a critical story, which may be hurtful personally, can be very valuable to your business. [When I announced my plans to build a huge new real estate development to the press], not all of them liked the idea of the world’s tallest building. But the point is that we got a lot of attention, and that alone creates value.

Tony Schwartz (under the name of a failed businessman with a gift for self-promotion), The Art of the Deal (1987) c/o

As my gentle readers have probably noticed, I like factual, cautious things. So its frustrating to read or hear things which spend more time rebutting some hurting wrong opinion than presenting facts. I never heard this opinion, and I am reading this book or listening to this talk because I want to see what the author thinks about the topic. They only have so much time to reach me, so why do they waste most of it telling me not to think something I don’t think?

Part of the problem is that its hard to predict what your audience thinks they already know unless you have talked back and forth with them. As Stoya writes:

And then I stopped writing. Entirely. I could barely even email.

It took a few months for me to understand what the block was. All that previous writing had been addressed to the Entire Internet, and the Entire Internet had become a bit terrifying. Threats like “(I will rape and murder you)” were harder to laugh off, and some MRA group had posted something claiming to offer a bounty for putting this bitch behind bars. It took a whole damn year for me to find that one funny… and then it was hilarious.

Seriously though, the Internet felt scary enough to make the writing part of me freeze up.

Over the summer I tried a couple of things and managed to write two real pieces. (She thought about what those two pieces she completed had in common). … I need to be writing towards a group or individual in order to write at all.

One reason I am paralyzed about teaching is that it is so hard to plan in abstract when you don’t know in what country you will be teaching. I am still thinking about someone who sad that the first few times you teach, you should focus on being clear and organized and not worry about the latest trendy pedagogy. If I committed to say “teach a class as a sessional instructor in Canada” that would be easier.

But I also think that there are perverse incentives in publishing. Books with framings like “myths and realities” seem to sell well. I think these use some of the same psychology as the ads which create a need and offer to fill it. According to Sarah Everts on Science for the People #387, early campaigns for deodorant in the 1920s and 1930s had the theme “you smell but your friends are too polite to tell you.” If there are myths, maybe you already believe them? And by learning to avoid them you will become superior to those ignorant believers. So presenting a book or a talk as “rebutting myths” may be a good way of getting an audience, but a bad way of educating people who know that they do not know anything about the topic.

I am always looking for best practices. And the best practice I learned is that if an idea is without merit, you should wrap it in a truth sandwich. “The moon is made of rock with an average composition of …. Some people say that the moon is made of green cheese but this can be showed to be incorrect because $reasons. In fact, the moon is made of silicous material similar to …” (Apparently a George Lakoff coined the term). Its important to be able to refute misconceptions, but you should try to only bring them up if people ask about them, and the main discussion should focus on facts and the best way of thinking about them. A good example is the BBC in our Time episode “The An Lushan Rebellion” (16 February 2012 where the host brings up Matthew White’s claim that it killed a quarter of the population of China, and the guest experts explain that the war caused massive migration and the breakdown of the taxation and census system, so at its end the census recorded half as many people as before the war, but clearly only part of that loss was due to death. During the An Lushan Rebellion many people in China found ways to evade being registered and taxed, conscripted, or assigned forced labour, and how many did this, how many moved out of reach of the government, and how many died is unknowable. The guests only mentioned White’s claim to explain why it was not well supported.

One reason why this is a best practice is Streisand Effect, but that seems more about making something famous by trying to suppress it than about spreading an idea by trying to refute it- do my gentle readers know of a better name?

When you are teaching a subject to beginners, you should focus on things they should know and things they should do. You should only bring up things they should not believe and should not do if your particular audience is familiar with those ideas or making those mistakes. This is why academic monographs for experts spend so long answering the theories in earlier books, but journalistic books for beginners focus on the author’s pet theory. The expert is familiar with other people’s theories and may believe in one, but the general audience may not know anything about the topic. If they have heard of other theories, they can ask you and you can address them! But many people don’t seem to have learned what I am teaching in this post.

Further Reading: I show how a focus on rebutting distorted the study of early Greek warfare in “War and Soldiers in the Achaemenid Empire: Some Historiographical and Methodological Considerations.” In Kai Ruffing, Kerstin Droß-Krüpe, Sebastian Fink, and Robert Rollinger (eds.), Societies at War: Proceedings of the 10th Symposium of the Melammu Project held in Kassel September 26-28 2016 and Proceedings of the 8th Symposium of the Melammu Project held in Kiel November 11-15 2014 (Verlag der österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften: Vienna, 2020) pp. 495-515 (PDF available upon request)

Key terms in marketing / propaganda are Succès de scandale and “there is no such thing as bad publicity” (tip of the hat to Téa Smith)

Help me keep learning and testing best practices with a monthly donation on Patreon or or even liberapay

Edit 2022-07-08: see now Téa Smith’s explanation from 2010 for people who don’t understand:

I operate from the True Fans Theory online, and advise others to do the same. This means my focus is on finding people I want to work with, and leverage those who are not my fans to get mad and share my stuff. So, to answer your question, no, because my use of (swear words) filters out the people who ask dumb questions about me using (swear words), and their outrage attracts likeminded people who think you’re a bit uptight.

Edit 2022-12-07: see also danah boyd, “What if Failure is the Plan?” (Medium)

In the United States, it’s hard to overstate how the media is entangled with contemporary partisan politics and ideology. This means that information tends not to flow across partisan divides in coherent ways that enable debate. In general, when journalists/advocates/regular people on the left declare conservative politicians/policies to be failures, this has little impact on the right because it is actively ignored by the media outlets consumed by those on the right. But interestingly, when journalists/advocates/regular people on the right declare progressive politicians/policies to be failures, both mainstream media and the left obsessively amplify falsehoods and offensive content in an attempt to critique and counteract them.

Edit 2024-04-27: a San Francisco startup person named Niels Hoven explains how someone sped up the launch of his startup Mentava by being angry about it on birdsite, therefore putting its name and goal in front of potential customers who signed up

Edit 2024-05-08: Spencer McDaniel points to the tragic actor Hegelochus who became famous because people accused him of mispronouncing a line

(scheduled 12 September 2021)

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4 thoughts on “Debunkers Beware, All Publicity is Good Publicity

  1. russell1200 says:

    Making a disingenuous argument against a point in order to actually promote the point, could possibly be referred to as “giving lip service”

    Lip Service: Pretending to agree when it’s clear that you don’t really agree. This is more of a form of deception where a lack of reasoning cannot be blamed.

    Or you have:
    Argument by Rhetorical Question: Setting up questions in such a way to get the answers you want. This is a name for an argumentation strategy covered by both the loaded question and leading question fallacies.

    Personally, I think I would call “argument/arguing under a false flag”

    1. Sean says:

      There is a name for the gambit of saying “before such a reverend body, my dear colleagues, I will not discuss my opponent’s many ethical failings, scandalous family situation, or severe halitosis.” I don’t know why there is not a good name for saying something controversial to get attention and because some people hear “not X” and remember “X” or “those idiots who talk too much say not-X so there may be something to the idea.” Its a classic gambit and rhetoricians like to name things like that.

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