A Lie, Repeated Often Enough, Becomes "Truth"

Sun, 2007-09-09 10:16Jim Hoggan
Jim Hoggan's picture

A Lie, Repeated Often Enough, Becomes "Truth"

This is an excellent article from the Washington Post on a University of Michigan professor's research into the resilience of myths.

Dr. Norbert Schwarz has found that the harder you try to dispel a myth (eg. that the international consensus about climate change is somehow in doubt), the more you contribute to its impact, merely by the repetition.

Schwarz chose to work with the kind of “myth-buster” material favoured by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Specifically, he found that within 30 minutes of reading a flyer on the myths surrounding flu vaccines, older people misremembered 28 per cent of the false statements as true. Three days later, they remembered 40 per cent of the myths as factual.Younger people did better at first, but with the passage of time, they too began to reprocess the freshly debunked myths as accurate statements of fact.

The Washington Post speculated that this tendency might explain the enduring belief in the United States that Saddam Hussein and Iraq are somehow associated with the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, although no evidence of a connection has ever been produced.

Similarly, this phenomenon can explain the effectiveness of the campaign to deny climate change. No matter how many times we prove that the leading quibblers are people of little scientific expertise or that they are directly or indirectly in the employ of Exxon Mobil and other fossil fuel companies, a certain portion of the population will still remember the “debate” but forget the factual fine points.

This also fits well with Susan Bales' research on framing, which demonstrates that the first person to “frame” an argument most often succeeds in capturing the public and that changing a frame is extraordinarily difficult.

Regrettably, there are no easy directions for overcoming these public education challenges. As The Post concludes, ” Myth-busters … have the odds against them.” But everyone involved in this debate should keep this insight in mind and be careful out they craft their own arguments. Stick to the facts and try, in all cases, to void repeating the mistruths that so often creep into the climate change conversation.

Comments

… is the daughter of time.” Aulus Gellius

To which Francis Bacon added: “… not of authority.”

If only it were true. Trying to dispel deeply held but erroneous beliefs is extraordinarily difficult, even in the face of hard physical evidence. It was ever thus.

It is also difficult to get past the vested interests, as pointed out by Gore in IT: “it is impossible to explain something to somebody when their paycheck depends on them not understanding it.”

thanks to the web, and pages like these here, information (just need to get the ‘right’ kind of information) is easily available!
While trying to cope with the urgency of this issue, it can help a lot actually having some deniers name (+ neat little picture), rather than some oil companies name.

good night

A number of thoughts crossed my mind; rationality can be less persuasive than myth – a world springing from emotional imagery, a “picture in our heads,” as Walter Lippmann called it. And our beliefs are often less guided by a reality that ‘is’ than a reality as we’d ‘like it to be,’ a world we’ve imagined to serve our emotional needs.

Schwartz’s research involves more than an example of “wishful thinking.” Apocryphal stories are more readily recalled despite their dubious provenance, which allows for their substitution when the truth is murky. And considerable effort has been placed on muddying the waters, by individuals intent on manipulating beliefs through the use of disinformation techniques.

Denial Ain’t Just a River.

Although apparently not part of this research, one thought that occurred to me is that denial has been called a reverse availability heuristic (i.e., a fallacy of consequences), which would explain why so much emphasis has been placed by the critics themselves on the catastrophic aspects of global warming, in order to disingenuously accuse climate scientists of being alarmists.