Busting the Practice of Myth Busting

August 29, 2009 Julie Fisher-Rowe

Insights from The Opportunity Agenda

Strengthening Americans’ commitment to progressive change means helping them see the ways in which the values they hold dear, values like opportunity, mobility, and community, are at stake. As social justice communicators, it is our job to help people draw the connections between the events of the day and their most deeply held principles.

Myth Busting

Myth busting is a commonly used communications tactic but, as mounting evidence shows, lining up facts to disprove an opponent's false assertions just doesn't work.

Myth busting is a commonly used communications tactic but, as mounting evidence shows, lining up facts to disprove an opponent's false assertions just doesn't work.  Most recently, Sharon Begley takes on the practice in Newsweek, exploring why people believe nutty stories about health care reform or supposed controversies about the president's birth certificate. She reports that, basically, people want to believe what they want to believe and they predisposed to ignoring any facts that clash with those beliefs. In fact, she finds that we actually go out of our way to find facts that bolster our beliefs. And most people are not too picky about the source of those facts, which makes the internet an ideal tool for them.

However, it's true that the audiences we want to reach are not usually completely opposed to our arguments and committed to disagreeing with us regardless of the facts. Usually, we need to sway the middle, the people who haven't necessarily made up their minds. Why not line up statistics showing how wrong opposing arguments are for them? There are a few reasons. First, even with these groups, facts are not going to be the swaying element of your argument. If they are leaning toward believing that immigration is generally bad for the country, numbers showing how much immigrants contribute to the economy are not going sway them alone. It's important, instead, to frame arguments with the basic values that we know our audiences share. In the case of immigration, fairness is important. Numbers can then support how, because immigrants pay into a health care system, for instance, it's only fair that they receive the benefits from it.

But with these middle audiences, there is another danger in relying on myth busting, and that's repeating your opponent's argument. If a series of myth busts say "immigrants do NOT commit more crimes than citizens" or "health care reform does NOT want to kill your grandmother", you have put those arguments back into print once again, with only a measly "not" separating them from your opponents. Worse, some myth busting sheets repeat the arguments word for word and the refute them. Research shows that this mainly leaves the bad argument lingering in people's minds, not the counter.  As Shankar Vedantam reports in the Washington Post:

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. Mayo's findings were published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in 2004.

"If someone says, 'I did not harass her,' I associate the idea of harassment with this person," said Mayo, explaining why people who are accused of something but are 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.

"If you think 9/11 and Iraq, this is your association, this is what comes in your mind," she added. "Even if you say it is not true, you will eventually have this connection with Saddam Hussein and 9/11."

So what should messengers be doing? Vedantam continues:

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. 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.

I do realize that making the case for abolishing this practice is much like myth busting itself: facts and evidence don't necessarily work. If you believe this practice to be effective, it's going to be difficult to talk you out of it.  So, in following the above advice, here's what we suggest you do instead:

  1. Talk about values. Introduce the big value themes that are important to audiences early in your arguments to find common ground.
  2. Make positive assertions. Say what's true instead of arguing about what's not.
  3. Use facts to bolster values-based arguments. Facts and statistics are still important, but need to be framed in a way that 1) makes audiences care and 2) underscores why they should believe what you've already made them feel good about believing.