Extraordinary claims. Ordinary investigations.

The art of debunking

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If you want to debunk a myth, you quote it clearly, then point out why it’s false, right? Right. But the Washington Post has an article detailing recent research showing that:

denials and clarifications, for all their intuitive appeal, can paradoxically contribute to the resiliency of popular myths. … Repetition seems to be a key culprit. Things that are repeated often become more accessible in memory, and one of the brain’s subconscious rules of thumb is that easily recalled things are true. …

Experiments by Ruth Mayo, a cognitive social psychologist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, also found that for a substantial chunk of people, the “negation tag” of a denial falls off with time. …

By merely quoting the myth, you are helping to promote it. But is silence then the answer?

Unfortunately, the answer to that question also seems to be no. Another recent study found that when accusations or assertions are met with silence, they are more likely to feel true, said Peter Kim, an organizational psychologist at the University of Southern California. He published his study in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

A possible solution would be…

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.

But Mayo acknowledged that a new assertion denying a false claim without even mentioning it can be inaccurate, and may not be an alternative in some cases.

Unfortunately, information directed to the general public must indeed be carefully constructed. Which means that all the details and intricacies of a question may well be impossible to convey (something like Cosmos for rednecks).

[via Museum of Hoaxes, Anomalist]

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