Mythbusting – it’s harder than you think

The Washington Post reports on research that correcting mythical beliefs is more difficult than you’d think. The interesting finding seems to be that if you repeat the myth in the course of correcting it, people are more likely to forget the correct information and remember the myth!

When University of Michigan social psychologist Norbert Schwarz had volunteers read the CDC flier, however, he found that within 30 minutes, older people misremembered 28 percent of the false statements as true. Three days later, they remembered 40 percent of the myths as factual.

Younger people did better at first, but three days later they made as many errors as older people did after 30 minutes. Most troubling was that people of all ages now felt that the source of their false beliefs was the respected CDC.

The psychological insights yielded by the research, which has been confirmed in a number of peer-reviewed laboratory experiments, have broad implications for public policy. The conventional response to myths and urban legends is to counter bad information with accurate information. But the new psychological studies show that denials and clarifications, for all their intuitive appeal, can paradoxically contribute to the resiliency of popular myths.

It’s interesting the examples that they use as popular myths that have become ingrained through repetition.

This phenomenon may help explain why large numbers of Americans incorrectly think that Saddam Hussein was directly involved in planning the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and that most of the Sept. 11 hijackers were Iraqi. While these beliefs likely arose because Bush administration officials have repeatedly tried to connect Iraq with Sept. 11, the experiments suggest that intelligence reports and other efforts to debunk this account may in fact help keep it alive.

Similarly, many in the Arab world are convinced that the destruction of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 was not the work of Arab terrorists but was a controlled demolition; that 4,000 Jews working there had been warned to stay home that day; and that the Pentagon was struck by a missile rather than a plane.

So hear that framers and mythbusters? If you want to change popular perception of science, and myths about everything from global warming to 9/11 conspiracies, one major thing to remember is to not repeat the myth.

Mayo found that rather than deny a false claim, it is better to make a completely new assertion that makes no reference to the original myth. Rather than say, as Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) recently did during a marathon congressional debate, that “Saddam Hussein did not attack the United States; Osama bin Laden did,” Mayo said it would be better to say something like, “Osama bin Laden was the only person responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks” — and not mention Hussein at all.

There you have it. I admit this would be difficult to do. For the most part, when I take on something that is patently false as part of a skeptical response, I often repeat the claim in order to take it apart. This research would suggest that by merely repeating the myth, I’m shooting myself in the foot.

So the question is, when writing skeptically about myths that people believe and repeat, how do you challenge individuals making the claims without mentioning what claim they made? I’ll have to keep this research in mind in the future I think, and while I’ll still mock people for really stupid statements, the focus of skeptical writers should be on providing positive statements of correct information, while avoiding repetition of the false information.