Myths are tenacious. Many of us get frustrated in our attempts to try and set things straight because it seems like people will believe them against all the evidence. Trying to convince them they are wrong does not seem to work. But maybe we are going about it the wrong way, two authors argue, with the result that we end up actually strengthening the belief rather than weakening it.
Stephen Lewandowsky and John Cook set out to review the science on this topic, and even carried out a few experiments of their own. This effort led to their “Debunker’s Handbook”, which gives practical, evidence-based techniques for correcting misinformation about, say, climate change or evolution. Yet the findings apply to any situation where you find the facts are falling on deaf ears.
The first thing their review turned up is the importance of “backfire effects” – when telling people that they are wrong only strengthens their belief. In one experiment, for example, researchers gave people newspaper corrections that contradicted their views and politics, on topics ranging from tax reform to the existence of weapons of mass destruction. The corrections were not only ignored – they entrenched people’s pre-existing positions.
They suggest that rather than trying to correct the misinformation, what we need to do is ignore the myth and provide an alternative explanation for the phenomenon.
What you must do, they argue, is to start with the plausible alternative (that obviously you believe is correct). If you must mention a myth, you should mention this second, and only after clearly warning people that you’re about to discuss something that isn’t true.
This debunking advice is also worth bearing in mind if you find yourself clinging to your own beliefs in the face of contradictory facts. You can’t be right all of the time, after all.
That last point is important. We have to be on our guard against falling into the same trap of believing myths against the evidence because they appeal to our prejudices.