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Myth-busters have the odds against them
September 5, 2007 10:30 PM   Subscribe

Persistence of Myths Could Alter Public Policy Approach. "The conventional response to myths and urban legends is to counter bad information with accurate information. But the new psychological studies (PDFs) show that denials and clarifications, for all their intuitive appeal, can paradoxically contribute to the resiliency of popular myths." [Via Firedoglake, more at MindHacks.]
posted by homunculus (53 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
Haven't had time to read these studies yet, but I suspect they'll only reinforce my suspicions regarding the inexplicable belief (held by so many of our fellow citizens) that there was no shadow government-orchestrated conspiracy or involvement of any kind behind the 9/11 attacks. The whacko, nut-job, taken-at-face-value faith in the myth that the spectacular attacks were the acts of only a ragtag handful of insane zealots is one of the most doggedly persistent of our time. Amazing what some people will believe! Break out the tinfoil hats!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 10:51 PM on September 5, 2007 [1 favorite]


You poor fool, tinfoil hats don't work! That's just another myth!
posted by homunculus at 10:59 PM on September 5, 2007


Those are some Adam-grabbin tags, but I think you could actually see this happen to Mythbusters episodes 15 or 20 years down the line...

"Hey, I hear that they put helium in the home team's kickoff so it flies farther."

"You know, I think I remember a Mythbusters about that back in the day, it was confirmed!"

Of course, just by saying that, their Google Goggles will retrieve the relevant segment for them and drop a busted sign on their retinas, so maybe there's hope after all.

can you tell I've been reading rainbows end?
posted by ulotrichous at 11:12 PM on September 5, 2007 [1 favorite]


In other news: Bush ‘Still Believed Saddam Possessed WMD’ In April 2006
posted by homunculus at 11:16 PM on September 5, 2007


That's not what I heard.
posted by stavrogin at 11:28 PM on September 5, 2007


Since we can't refute it, and we can't ignore it, what's left? Agree with it? Pretend it's cool to believe it so that the cool kids reject it? What?

I mean, it's being suggested that anyone saying anything will automatically cause people to believe it if you ignore it (if it's being repeated often) or try to refute it (and in so doing, you repeat it often.) The only alternative, then, appears to be squelching all discussion of it so that it is forgotten.

If true, complete media control by a small handful of corporations is actually a much bigger deal than I thought.
posted by davejay at 11:44 PM on September 5, 2007


New psychological studies indicate people are idiots and remain so despite all efforts. More at 11, including a story about puppies!
posted by blacklite at 11:47 PM on September 5, 2007 [6 favorites]


I heard it's not true that all 19 9/11 were Lithuanian Pentecostals so it must be true!
posted by davy at 11:51 PM on September 5, 2007


By the way, I category deny that languagehat is my Mommy.
posted by davy at 11:53 PM on September 5, 2007


Via the MindHacks link, Memory for Fact, Fiction, and Misinformation: The Iraq War 2003 (PDF).
posted by homunculus at 12:04 AM on September 6, 2007


This is actually what I needed to be reading to do my job.
posted by parmanparman at 12:05 AM on September 6, 2007


We must eliminate old wives.

Since we can't refute it, and we can't ignore it, what's left?

The best strategy is to keep teaching what's right and not mentioning what's wrong unless you have to. Slap down the myths using strong, memorable counterimages. PR for truth.

To fight the common myth that women are no good at cooking, for example, and that only men belong in the kitchen, give people lots of strong, memorable images of women being excellent cooks while men are invisible or just sitting there waiting for the yummy food to be served.

Politicians do this to lie, of course. If there are accusations of infidelity, the guy is suddenly posing for pictures with wife and kids and house and dog. If he's seen as a wimp or deserter or failure, he puts on a helmet and goes for a ride in a tank or jet. So sometimes it fails, but that's when someone's trying to tell you something false. If you're telling the truth, a good positive PR campaign (without mentioning the negative stuff) should work.
posted by pracowity at 12:12 AM on September 6, 2007


Karl Rove and Plato
posted by homunculus at 12:36 AM on September 6, 2007 [1 favorite]


The battle between man and machine raged on throughout the late '70s. Back then, it was only a prophecy, but now in the Present, the Past has occurred!

Also, Marilyn Manson played Paul on The Wonder Years. But he died suddenly when he ate Pop Rocks and then drank a Coke.
posted by ELF Radio at 1:56 AM on September 6, 2007


A passenger jet never hit the Pentagon. And the oft quoted Popular Mechanics "explanation" is a great steaming pile of poo.

Dogupyaz.
posted by uncanny hengeman at 2:20 AM on September 6, 2007


Smoking a single joint of marijuana will make a decent white woman crave a Mandingo Party.

And men don't escape the ravages of the drug either. Research evidence gathered from CAT scans, and from slices of the brains of dead marijuana addicts conclusively demonstrate that after a single marijuana joint, a hitherto right-thinking white man will actually ALLOW his woman to attend a Mandingo Party.

Those women that we see in seedy areas, flagging down cars and asking men of all races if they want to go on 'a date'? The pimp that turned them out managed to do so with just one joint of marijuana.

Thank God for Harry Anslinger. America would be a nation of mongrels and sexual deviants without him at the helm.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 3:38 AM on September 6, 2007


Isn't this what all advertising is based on?

"See in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda." George W. Bush, May 24, 2005

War is peace.
Slavery is freedom.
Propaganda is truth.

Yep, that's about right.
posted by Enron Hubbard at 5:15 AM on September 6, 2007


The problem that the 'voices of reason' have with getting the message across is that people don't like being told how stupid they are by a bunch of nerds.

'This is the truth, I'm so smart, you're so stooooo-pid' ain't going to win freinds or influence people.

e.g. New psychological studies indicate people are idiots and remain so despite all efforts.

As someone who has spent years teaching & training, I've always found people more responsive to new information & challenges to their preconceptions if it presented in a respectful, pleasant and interesting manner.

You morons.
posted by i_cola at 5:30 AM on September 6, 2007 [4 favorites]


The problem that the 'voices of reason' have with getting the message across is that people don't like being told how stupid they are by a bunch of nerds... I've always found people more responsive to new information & challenges to their preconceptions if it presented in a respectful, pleasant and interesting manner.

Yup. But it's so much more fun to point and laugh and/or sneer and insult. We see the results on MeFi every day.
posted by languagehat at 6:02 AM on September 6, 2007


I think to best combat this, we need a cultural shift. Once someone has lied, they need the title "Liar" tacked in front of their name. "Liar Dana Perino today announced something at a press conference, but as she's a liar, we didn't bother showing up and instead went out and did some research." Everyone has one chance.

Oh, and along with the cultural shift, we'd actually stop voting for anyone dubbed a Liar. Which I realize is quite the change from existing strategy where most people just vote for whoever has the "R" or the "D" by their name. Pardon me while I go pull out my hair.
posted by nobeagle at 6:06 AM on September 6, 2007 [2 favorites]


Cheers for the truly superb and depressing post! This explains a lot - and as reason continues to find itself embattled in these days of hokum it can only get worse. When I was young and people told me that the Illuminati ran things, or that the Apollo landings were faked, AIDS was god's way of culling the sinful etc I used to try and argue back enthusiastically with facts and reason. This very rarely worked - these days I usually just try and change the subject.
posted by The Salaryman at 6:07 AM on September 6, 2007


I was thrice smacked in the face by the bastion of truth that is snopes.com and now, whenever someone emails me some dubious bullshit, I copy and paste the snopes article into my reply.

No one has sent me any new mythy emails in some time... I'm sure that said people (hi, mom) still send said ridiculous emails... I'm just not one of the recipients.
posted by chuckdarwin at 6:08 AM on September 6, 2007


Repeat what you prefer others believe as though it is obvious. Be it the truth or a lie.
posted by I Foody at 6:24 AM on September 6, 2007


Since we can't refute it, and we can't ignore it, what's left? Agree with it? Pretend it's cool to believe it so that the cool kids reject it? What?

Well, if you'd read the article the best way to refute something is to imply it in an assertion, rather then a denial i.e. "al-Qaeda had no government support outside of Afghanistan" or "Bush lied about WMD to trick us into war." That sort of thing

As someone who has spent years teaching & training, I've always found people more responsive to new information & challenges to their preconceptions if it presented in a respectful, pleasant and interesting manner.

I'm annoyed by this attitude that mefites need to be "on message" All the time.
posted by delmoi at 6:29 AM on September 6, 2007


This mandingo party you mention, will there be cake and biscuits?
posted by Jeremy at 7:02 AM on September 6, 2007


More and more relevant with each passing day.
posted by felix betachat at 7:35 AM on September 6, 2007


homunculus, you should have your own tab on the front page.

Thanks for this post.
posted by four panels at 7:41 AM on September 6, 2007


With God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly.
posted by Astro Zombie at 7:52 AM on September 6, 2007


I'm trying to swear in God as a witness, but he keeps refusing to use the Bible. Says it's full of misquotes.
posted by languagehat at 8:13 AM on September 6, 2007 [6 favorites]


I once had a (young, impressionable, didn't date her) girl get mad at me because I would tell her she was wrong when she was wrong.

She called it being obsessed with denial. I couldn't come up with any kind of useful, rational response to that accusation. "But... you're wrong."

Denying things seems to do nothing when faced with that sort of mentality. It's stupefying. I mean, really, literally stupefying. And apparently far more prevalent than I want to believe.

There is probably a lesson here for the Democratic party. Even if you're right, you have to be a bit of a dogged asshole about it, or people just continue believing whatever they want to believe. You need to get in people's minds and into arguments and make sure that you get across to people that the truth is the motherfucking truth and it is wrong and stupid to believe otherwise. That reality exists and it's not going away.

I wish we had some leaders who could get on this.
posted by blacklite at 8:34 AM on September 6, 2007 [1 favorite]


(I'd do it, but I don't have a suit.)
posted by blacklite at 8:36 AM on September 6, 2007


I'm trying to swear in God as a witness, but he keeps refusing to use the Bible. Says it's full of misquotes.

*cough*
posted by felix betachat at 8:56 AM on September 6, 2007


"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."

Myths and mythology have an interesting effect on the human mind. Telling people they are wrong will rarely change someone's mind. My experience matches up with the research -- it seems that even referencing the the myth will reinforce it.

I was raised as a staunch religious conservative. I followed it to a T, did everything that was prescribed to me. Sometimes people would try to persuade me to see reason and realize that a lot of the claims the church made were not substantiated by facts. There was nothing these people could say though, I knew I was right in my beliefs. I had strawmen and rationalizations I'd made up and been fed all my life to uphold the mythology I had been raised with. These situations would trigger emotional responses and instantly make me defensive to any contrary information.

Then came along the 2004 US presidential elections. I got into politics for the first time in my life, researched the facts on both sides and started to realize the patterns of lies and misinformation the current ruling party dished out. I had no previous mythology when it came to politics and was able to research and come to conclusions based on rational thinking and facts. It upset me that they would spread such misinformation and parade it as fact to convince people to give them power and control.

Then, one fateful day in October 2004, I was in church and someone made a comment about the upcoming election. It was some joke that triggered my disgust for politics and in the moment I was finally able to make the connection in my head. I was able to realize that what I saw as ultimately wrong in politics was also happening in religion. The flood of realization that lying to obtain power was just as wrong in religion as it was in politics. I got up, walked out and never returned. I was finally able to unlock the portion of my mind that allowed me to view religion rationally and by facts.

This type of research hits home for me. Parallels are what's needed to "wake" people up from myths. No matter how many times people are told, it is very unlikely to go through. They have to make the connection between the parallels themselves. If a wall of emotional resistance is triggered by referencing the false myth, that would explain why so many people believe things that are easily proven false.
posted by Nerro at 8:59 AM on September 6, 2007 [13 favorites]


Nerro, that's a brilliant insight. You should take a look at Leon Festinger's classic study When Prophecy Fails. In brief, Festinger recognizes that, when empirical evidence tends not to match a collective belief system, group attrition is the natural result. People become disenchanted and drift away. Those who are left behind, however, are the ones most willing to sacrifice the truth in front of them to maintain their ideological convictions. In climactic situations where a group's beliefs are challenged, you tend to find a decrease in membership along with a parallel radicalization.

So, congratulations for waking up and walking away. But what you left behind should give us both pause.
posted by felix betachat at 9:11 AM on September 6, 2007


Smoking a single joint of marijuana will make a decent white woman crave a Mandingo Party.

You rang?
posted by Side Pony at 9:31 AM on September 6, 2007


The surge is wonking.
posted by phoque at 9:33 AM on September 6, 2007


The research also highlights the disturbing reality that once an idea has been implanted in people's minds, it can be difficult to dislodge. Denials inherently require repeating the bad information, which may be one reason they can paradoxically reinforce it.

I am so going to misuse this research in my professional life. Seriously. And I love that my co-workers can thank the CDC for the misery and weirdness that is soon to confront them.
posted by quin at 9:39 AM on September 6, 2007


Indeed, repetition seems to be a key culprit.

Indeed, repetition seems to be a key culprit.

Indeed, repetition seems to be a key culprit.

We call them talking points.
posted by quin at 9:42 AM on September 6, 2007


very very related, and one of Bush --and Hillary's-- favorite terms lately: The toxic "leader" meme--... And if you think that a “leader” is all-important, and that “leadership” is the only thing that will save the country, then I suggest that you expand your vocabulary by learning a new word:
Fuhrerprinzip.
This little “leader” meme is toxic to democracy, and with its constant drip, drip, drip into the bloodstream of the discourse, I fear that we’re converting more and more citizens into authoritarian followers. ...

posted by amberglow at 9:53 AM on September 6, 2007


“Now, gentlemen, now that we’ve attained control, we must pull together as one, like a twin! All for one! And all for one!”
Let me hear it for me!
(You’re under arrest!)

“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.”

Man, I bet they had no clue that would happen.

Y’know, if I did believe in any of the innane physical conspiracies about a missile hitting the twin towers or controlled demolition or some such why would it be surprising that those notions would remain even though the federal government (the entity I think took part in this massive coverup) put up a freekin web site to deny it?

Part of this myth persistence has to be by design in disinformation.
You say “Gee, looks mighty fishy that the guys in the highest offices were in bed with some of the same people the 9/11 terrorists were in bed with. And no one got fired. And the admin resisted the investigation” etc. etc. (all the cui bono stuff) but suddenly it’s about baroque paranoid fantasies about grandiose plans involving demolition teams and remote guided drones.
There is some propaganda value in the form of the denial as well. (Say “Look, we all know there was no conspiracy by the government on 9/11 to fire a missile at the Pentagon” and the insinuation is that it’s the only resistance to the party line)
The only paradox in the denial reinforcing the bad information comes if the repetition occurs through legitimately seeking clarity rather than using the bad info as a sort of screen.
Not everyone who says they’re trying to set things straight actually are.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:19 AM on September 6, 2007


I was thrice smacked in the face by the bastion of truth that is snopes.com and now, whenever someone emails me some dubious bullshit, I copy and paste the snopes article into my reply.

No one has sent me any new mythy emails in some time... I'm sure that said people (hi, mom) still send said ridiculous emails... I'm just not one of the recipients.


Ditto, chuckdarwin. There have been a number of people who have sent me urban legend emails (Gasout Day, Bill Gates giving people money, etc.). When I sent them replies with snopes.com and other references (and, of course, replying to ALL), they soon stopped. At first, I thought they stopped sending stupid emails. But I'm pretty sure they just stopped sending them to me.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 12:25 PM on September 6, 2007


ObscureReferenceMan: I was the reply-to-all party-pooper with the snopes.com links who kept shitting on a family member's mailings. I'm no longer receiving the emails. Same likely reason, too.
posted by tippiedog at 12:39 PM on September 6, 2007


I'm a nerd. And I'm well into my fifth decade on this planet. And it was only very recently that I had the following realization, which I share because I think it will be useful for all the younger nerdlings out there:

Most people don't share your values. For example, you probably value truth very highly; it might even be your highest value. Admittedly, almost everyone will at least pay lip-service to truth as an important value (which is not inconsistent with what I'm about to say).

In my opinion, a majority of people don't give a shit about the truth. Or, to the extent that they do, it ranks lower on their value scale than many other things—such as power (even the minor social power of having something interesting to say).

So my advice is to stop believing what people say and observe what they do. (And I think most people understand this from an early age, which makes me wonder why we nerds do not.)
posted by Crabby Appleton at 12:59 PM on September 6, 2007 [3 favorites]


This article has all kinds of implications on how to effectively put across a point.

e.g. for the atheists, "The God Delusion" is a better title than "God is not great"
posted by storybored at 1:11 PM on September 6, 2007


e.g. for the atheists, "The God Delusion" is a better title than "God is not great"

If by that you mean "for atheists to feel smug and self-righteous," yeah, perfect. For communicating with anyone else, it sucks.

An excellent title for making the point that a belief in god is unnecessary: The Origin of Species.
posted by languagehat at 1:56 PM on September 6, 2007


God Is Not Great is a brilliant title, though. Imagine a fundamentalist Christian confronted with this title. They are forced to rebut it by claiming the opposite: "God is Great". "Allahu Akbar". Exactly the claim made by their religion-crazed "enemies".

How religion ruins everything, indeed.

/derail
posted by BaxterG4 at 4:12 PM on September 6, 2007


(well said languagehat)
posted by Smedleyman at 4:13 PM on September 6, 2007


Just follow the money and you’ll find that advertisers picked up this phenomenon a while back. That’s why Geico runs back to back commercials on TV. As a rule, the more heavily advertised a product is... the more well advised you would be to avoid it in direct proportion to its advertising budget.

This goes for presidential candidates in spades.
posted by Huplescat at 5:52 PM on September 6, 2007


Yes, on second thought, "Origin of Species" is even better.
posted by storybored at 7:21 PM on September 6, 2007


In my opinion, a majority of people don't give a shit about the truth. Or, to the extent that they do, it ranks lower on their value scale than many other things—such as power

Sometimes people care about truth but it gets trumped by emotion and often they don't realize it.

I used to be nervous about flying when i was younger. I "felt" it was unsafe. Intellectually, i could see the argument that there was nothing to be afraid of but my "intution" made me avoid flying wherever possible.

I got over this eventually by flying a lot. But this is a trivial example of how reason gets easily bulldozed by other factors.
posted by storybored at 7:33 PM on September 6, 2007


Faludi NYT op-ed: America’s Guardian Myths
posted by amberglow at 7:41 AM on September 7, 2007 [2 favorites]


storybored, your point is well taken. Self-deception is endemic to humans for the reasons you cite and more.

I was referring to those who deliberately or negligently deceive others.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 3:25 PM on September 7, 2007


That's worthy of an FPP, amberglow.
posted by homunculus at 9:16 PM on September 7, 2007


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