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Why it’s so hard to debunk myths (and the secret to doing it)

The expression “mud sticks” doesn’t just refer to the aggravation you experience during spring planting. It also means that misinformation seems to have an uncanny knack for settling in and never letting go.

Take, for instance, these gems that persist despite (or perhaps because of) an online world of information at our fingertips: bovine flatulence and belching are single-handedly causing climate change, a persistent belief in cow tipping and brown cows give brown milk.

Misinformation creates myths — and once myths start to propagate on social media, they are next to impossible to correct. A combination of rampant, viral misinformation and a general inability for people to distinguish credible information from lies, myths and hoaxes can make it difficult to break through the static with the facts.

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A combination of various complex cognitive processes (such as mental shortcuts, or “heuristics,” and cognitive biases) make it very difficult to refute a myth. For example, the confirmation bias is the tendency for us to “cherry-pick” and favour information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses.

We learned in last month’s column that you can’t just throw more facts and information out there in the hope that something will stick and people will finally “get it.” And trying to disprove myths can actually have the opposite effect. The “backfire” effect, which says that people actually double-down on their beliefs when presented with contradictory information, can make myths seem even more real. This leads us into dangerous territory where things that seem familiar are better remembered and perceived to be true.

Additionally, telling someone outright that what they believe is ridiculous and untrue threatens their world view. Challenging someone’s deeply held beliefs around how they think the world works trips off the “fight or flight” response since you are essentially asking them to question their identity, an incredibly stressful proposition. Neither reaction is conducive to receiving new information.

So, how can you present facts and information in a way that won’t backfire and add power to the myth you’re fighting?

The Debunking Handbook (published in 2012 by John Cook and Stephan Lewandowsky) suggests three key points to successfully debunk a myth:

1. A refutation must focus on the facts, not the myth, to avoid the misinformation becoming more familiar. Your goal is to increase people’s familiarity with the facts.
2. Any mention of a myth should be preceded by explicit warnings to notify the reader/listener that the upcoming information is false.
3. When you blow a belief out of the water, you must immediately include an alternative explanation to fill in the resulting knowledge gap.

You should also keep the following in mind:

  • Once something is added to a person’s collection of beliefs, they will do almost anything to protect those beliefs. To insert new or correct information, find small openings in their belief armour by connecting to what they value, what they love or fear, or what prompts them to action.
  • Show them that swapping facts doesn’t necessarily mean changing their world views. Since people internalize their sense of self through their values and roles, understanding how they see themselves will provide insight as to why they hold a particular opinion. Remember that when someone’s identity is threatened, they will feel attacked; by framing information in a way that helps them realize that new information doesn’t have to conflict with who they are, it makes your information less identity-threatening and they’ll be more receptive to it.
  • Choose the information you share and how you present it wisely: “When you start to pull out facts and figures, hyperlinks and quotes, you are actually making the opponent feel as though they are even more sure of their position than before you started the debate. As they match your fervour, the same thing happens in your skull. The backfire effect pushes both of you deeper into your original beliefs,” says David McRaney of the website and podcast “You Are Not So Smart.”
  • Be mindful of the gaps you create when trying to debunk a myth. To make sense of what’s important, relevant and urgent, our brains connect the dots of incoming information and then fill gaps with stuff we already know, concepts we’re more familiar with, or information from trusted sources (friends, family). When a myth is debunked, there’s a hole left in that person’s knowledge repository — like the empty space that’s left when you remove a book from the library shelf. As Cook and Lewandowsky point out, you must immediately provide an alternative explanation to fill that gap or other potentially incorrect information will seep in.

Ultimately, it’s important to keep in mind that even after debunking efforts, “fake news” can still distort people’s beliefs, because you can’t “unring the bell.” The best approach is to not repeat the false information since repetition = familiarity = believability (i.e. what talk show host Stephen Colbert famously called “truthiness”). While you can’t turn back to a point in time where your audience hasn’t heard the misinformation, you can choose not to feed the monster, or, at the very least, feed it a healthy diet.

April Stewart is a sixth-generation dairy farmer in Quebec, president of Canadian Young Speakers for Agriculture, and principal of Alba PR, whose latest project is The Farmer’s Survival Guide.

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