Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The dangers of mythbusting

I need to address some new research reported recently in The Washington Post that warns truth-tellers to be careful in the way they attack myths and false conventional wisdom.

In my book I make a big point of the importance of repeatedly correcting public misperceptions, because merely reporting the truth once and moving on is not a powerful enough weapon against misinformation. But a recent study seems to show that busting myths in the wrong way can do as much to perpetuate them as to dispel them.

The basic finding is that once an idea has entered people's heads, repeated exposure to the idea tends to reinforce its original message, regardless of whether new information contradicts that message. So even though people are repeatedly reminded that Saddam Hussein wasn't involved in planning the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, a pretty steady 40 percent continue to believe it.

The research, which wasn't specifically about terrorism, "highlights the disturbing reality that once an idea is implanted in people's minds, it can be difficult to dislodge," the Post story says. "Denials inherently require repeating bad information, which may be one reason they can paradoxically reinforce it."

Citing another study, the story concludes that, rather than denying falsehoods, "it is better to make a completely new assertion that makes no reference to the original myth."

The Post does some great regular reporting on how the brain's inherent tendencies affect our response to politics, news and information. Lots of stuff we intuitively think is constructive or obvious can turn out otherwise, because of the way we're wired. This latest story is a warning that, in pursuit of making sure people know the truth, we have to be very careful not to reinforce fallacies.