Heretic that I am, I regularly read the Skeptic and the Skeptical Inquirer (2 magazines that regularly attempt to debunk anything that seems to be unscientific). Although I don’t agree with everything in their magazines (much of it is atheistic), I do like a lot of what they print.
The other day I picked up the latest copy of the Skeptical Inquirer and found that the first article I read tied neatly into LDS apologetic efforts. The article is entitled “Difficulty in Debunking Myths Rooted in the Way the Mind Works,” by Shankar Vedantam. Here are some quotes, paraphrases, and summaries of the article.
“The conventional reponse to myths and urban legends is to counter bad information with accurate information. But the new pyscological studies show that denials and clarifications, for all their intuitive appeal, can paradoxically contribute to the resiliency of popular myths.”
One such study, for instance, focused on a flier printed by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) that combated several myths about the flu vaccine. A University of Michigan psychologist did a study by having people read the flier and then asked them questions about it later. He found that within 30 minutes of having read the flier, older people “misremembered 28 percent of the false statements as true. Three days later, they remembered 40 percent of the myths as factual.” While younger people did better (and he doesn’t define younger and older), three days later the younger people made as many errors as the older people did after 30 minutes. “Most troubling was that people of all ages now felt that the source of their false beliefs was the respected CDC.”
Another study from the WWII era has shown that “the more often people heard false wartime rumors, the more likely they were to believe them.”
Attempting to understand this phenomenon, some psychologists suggest that “the brain uses subconcious ‘rules of thumb’ that can bias it into thinking that false information is true….. Long-term memories… are the most susceptible to the bias of thinking that well-recalled false
information is true.”
Denials and rebutalls of false information are obviously still usefull, otherwise everyone would believe false information, but “the mind’s bias does affect many people, especially those who want to believe the myth for their own reasons, or those who are only peripherally interested and less likely to invest the time and effort needed to firmly grasp the facts.”
Research also shows 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.” Repetition, it seems, may be a key culprit to the problem. The more the information is repeated, the more accessible it becomes in the brain as one of the “rules of thumb” that is easily recalled as being “true” because the brain remembers that many of the things we recall quickly and easily are true.
“…someone trying to manipulate public opinion can take advantage of this aspect of brain functioning. In politics and elsewhere, this means that whoever makes the first assertion about something has a large advantage over everyone who denies it later.”
Furthermore, another study suggests that hearing the same thing over and over from the same source can have the same effect as hearing the thing from different sources. “…the brain gets tricked into thinking it has heard a piece of information from multiple, independent sources, even when it has not.” The mind “is not good at remembering when and where a person first learned something. 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.”
According to some studies: “…for a substantial number of people, the ‘negation tag’ of denial falls off with time. ‘If someone says, “I did not harass her,” I associate the idea of harassment with this person,’” which is why “people who are accused of something but later proved innocent find their reputations remain tarnished. ‘Even if he is innocent, this is what is activated when I hear this person’s name again.’”
How do we work around this problem? One researcher suggests that “rather than deny a false claim, it is better to make a completely new assertion that makes no reference to the original myth. Rather than say[ing]…. ‘Saddam Hussein did not attack the United States [on 9-11]; Osama bin Laden did, [a common myth]‘ …it would be better to say something like, ’Osama bin Laden was the only person responsible for the September 11 attacks.’” While this statement isn’t entirely accurate either, it avoids repeating the incorrect information.
What about not saying anything? Is it better not to respond with a denial or rebuttal? This doesn’t help either. At least one study printed in a peer-reviewed psychology journal “found that when accusations or assertions are met with silence, they are more likely to feel true.”
Vedantam closes with this: “Mythbusters, in other words, have the odds against them.”
Hopefully my mind is not so warped that I’m not the only who sees LDS apologetic endeavors– and the challenges we face– in the foregoing article.