More About Myths and Chickens


Insights from The Opportunity Agenda

A blog I wrote last month about mythbusting (and chickens) garnered a huge amount of reader interest, questions, and comments. In this week's post, I respond to some of that input.

Nobody here buy us chickens

The point of the post was that the progressive habit of repeating and busting conservative myths (e.g., that immigrants cause crime, or that irresponsible borrowers caused the financial crisis) tends to reinforce the myth in audiences' minds, rather than to debunk it. And, if we spend all of our time rebutting these myths, we’re not spending any time successfully connecting our arguments to the values we share with all Americans.

If we spend all of our time rebutting these myths, we’re not spending any time successfully connecting our arguments to the values we share with all Americans.

Some readers asked whether this rule applies when "preaching to the choir" of progressives rather than to "persuadables" like swing voters. The answer is "yes," for a couple of reasons.

First, progressives tend not to be as united in their beliefs about specific issues as one might think. Immigration is a good example, in which there is a spectrum of progressive opinion, with most supporting a pathway to citizenship, but a significant minority opposing it, and many open to persuasion either way. Repeating spurious allegations, with an eye toward disputing them, mostly serves to strengthen the false connection in audiences' minds.

Second, the main reasons for "preaching to the choir" are to activate one's base on an issue and to equip allies with facts and arguments to convince persuadable audiences. Neither of these goals is advanced by mythbusting. Indeed, if we equip members of our base with myths and mythbusting arguments, that's what they'll share with the persuadables they're talking to.

Other readers asked about the social science research that counsels against mythbusting. A succinct one-page summary of the voluminous research, compiled by the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, can be found here.

Finally, several readers asked whether there are exceptions to the advice against mythbusting. Absolutely. If you are President Barack Obama and you are about to ridicule Donald Trump at the Correspondents Dinner then knock off Osama Bin Laden, then it's OK to release your birth certificate.

Remember, when you’re putting forth your own, values-based arguments, that’s when you’re winning. And when you’re busting myths, you’re reinforcing the exact idea you want to counter.