Monday, September 10, 2007

Odds are stacked against myth debunkers

Here is an interesting article I've read recently. It has depressing implications for Center Of Inquiry and I guess everyone who would like to see the world thinking more rationally.

Persistence of Myths Could Alter Public Policy Approach

Some highlights from the article:

The conventional response to myths and urban legends is to counter bad information with accurate information. But the new psychological studies show that denials and clarifications, for all their intuitive appeal, can paradoxically contribute to the resiliency of popular myths.


The research also highlights the disturbing reality 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.

Indeed, 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.

But silently ignoring the lies isn't any better, the article says:

So is silence the best way to deal with myths? 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.

The article ends with this pessimistic conclusion:

Myth-busters, in other words, have the odds against them.

It really makes you wonder if humanity is doomed to live in perpetual ignorance (and I know a lot of people would answer with a resounding "yes"! ;-() How did people ever stop believing, for example, that whispering incantations or casting an evil glance on someone can cause a person to fall ill? Actually, it may be too optimistic to say people stopped believing it. :-) There are plenty of people who still do, even these days. But at least the majority doesn't... I would hope. Or, OK, at least the majority doesn't think it's a valid reason to accuse someone of casting spells and burn them at a stake. So how did the humankind ever moved beyond these superstitions? Well, this question runs central to a James Morrow novel "The Last Witchfinder". The novel is about one woman's lifelong quest to banish not just the trials and executions of witches, but the very notion of witchery. We discussed this book in the FACT book club, and it lead to some interesting philosophical debates. I will post the report of the discussion in the next few weeks.

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