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The Difficulty of Debunking
The Washington Post has a depressing article about the difficulty of myth-busting. Experiments by Norbert Schwarz at the University of Michigan reveal that a few days after telling people a rumor is false, many of those people will have misremembered what they were told and think the rumor is true. The crux of the problem is that:
Denials inherently require repeating the bad information, which may be one reason they can paradoxically reinforce it.

Other psychologists have found that hearing the same thing again and again from the same source can actually trick the brain into thinking information is more credible, as if the information came from many sources:
People are not good at keeping track of which information came from credible sources and which came from less trustworthy ones, or even remembering that some information came from the same untrustworthy source over and over again. Even if a person recognizes which sources are credible and which are not, repeated assertions and denials can have the effect of making the information more accessible in memory and thereby making it feel true.

So what can myth-busters do? Unfortunately, not much. The only recommended tactic is to debunk rumors by not referring to the original rumor at all, and instead offering a completely different new assertion. For instance:
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.

It's going to make it pretty hard to operate a myth-busting website if one of the rules is that I can't mention the myth I'm debunking. (Thanks, Joe!)
Categories: Psychology
Posted by Alex on Wed Sep 05, 2007
Comments (8)
More from the Hoax Museum Archives:
Oh yes, that would indeed make it a lively site! Can you imagine the main blog? A blank page with a fart button in the corner...
Posted by Nettie  on  Wed Sep 05, 2007  at  05:46 AM
...a lie, told often enough, becomes truth...
Posted by Jon Newman  on  Wed Sep 05, 2007  at  07:31 AM
These experiments remind me of a time when I was watching a PBS special with a friend about Anastasia Manahan, AKA, Anna Anderson. The show discussed whether she was actually the Grand Duchess Anastasia.

The show interspersed interviews with historians both for and against, along with interviews of people who knew Anna Anderson. But most interestingly, it discussed DNA tests being done that would solve the issue conclusively.

Because they wanted the show to last more than 5 minutes, they waited until the very end to tell us that the results showed no relationship to Tsar Nicholas II and that her father was factory worker Franziska Schanzkowska, whom detractors had suspected all along.

At the end my friend says, "I still think she was the Grand Duchess."

I said, "Didn't you hear? The DNA evidence proved it could not have been her."

To which he replied, "There's just too much evidence on the other side."

I looked over at him and said, "You're a ****ing retard."
Posted by Ima Fish  on  Wed Sep 05, 2007  at  12:03 PM
Similarly, there was a study cited by Michael Shermer that showed it takes substantially less time to make a claim than it does to debunk it. So one technique in debate with, for instance, the ID people is that they make a plethora of claims. Their skeptical opponent only has time to debunk one or two of them, and observers can get the impression that the other claims stand.
Posted by JoeDaJuggler  on  Wed Sep 05, 2007  at  02:10 PM
"Mayo said it would be better to say something like, 'Osama bin Laden was the only person responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks'. . . ."
Except that that statement is false.
Posted by JoeDaJuggler  on  Wed Sep 05, 2007  at  02:16 PM
See, even the Democrats admit Saddam Hussein attacked the USA.

It's a joke dammit!
Posted by Christopher Cole  on  Wed Sep 05, 2007  at  09:33 PM
It's true. One time my mom was watching a movie, and the main character said "Death is a disease, one day we'll find a way to cure it." Well, a little while passed, and then she said to someone "I heard from somewhere that death is a disease, and one day they'll find a way to cure it."

I pointed out to her later that she was repeating something she heard from a movie. She seemed pretty embarrassed about it, but sometimes she still says it.
Posted by Sakano  on  Fri Sep 07, 2007  at  11:43 AM
I always think the classic case of this phenomenon is Proctor and Gamble's many attempts to deny the rumor that the soap and home products company is really a Satan-worshipping cult. Every time P&G issued a public disavowal, it just fanned the flames of the legend. It made no difference at all that the denial was well-reasoned and had lots of evidence behind it, while the Satanism rumor was ridiculous. Finally, the company gave up and just ignored the rumors and the associated boycotts, which seems to have worked better. You still hear the old Devil Worship chestnut once in a while, but it's not nearly as rampant as it was 20 or 30 years ago.
Posted by Big Gary  on  Fri Sep 07, 2007  at  05:50 PM
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