The Truth of False

Want to inform people that a myth is false? You can’t do it! Merely by talking about the myth, you are reaffirming it in their minds.

Want to “make” something true? Just tell it to your audience repeatedly. Eventually, they’ll mistake being told many times by the same source as being told by many sources the same thing.

This is how advertising works. This is how political attack ads work. This is how selling works.

From On the Media’s “The Truth of False“, aired September 7th, 2007

Listen to the article here


BOB GARFIELD: Americans may or may not be as sleep-deprived as drug makers claim, but if it were a myth you could try to quash it with the truth. That’s what the Centers for Disease Control Prevention recently did. They sent out a flyer listing various facts and myths about the flu vaccine and labeled them “true or false.” But a study at the University of Michigan found that the CDC flyer actually did nothing to change people’s minds and may have even spread vaccine myths to more people.

Shankar Vedantam, a reporter for The Washington Post, explains that right after reading the flyer, people mostly remembered the false statements as false.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM: But about 30 minutes later, older people started to remember some of the false statements as true, and three days later, very large numbers of older people and significant numbers of younger people also started remembering increasing numbers of myths as true.

The true statements did not suffer the same kind of deterioration with time. In other words, over time we tend to remember false things as true but not true things as false.

BOB GARFIELD: Hmm – well, I guess there’s some hope in that. By what mechanism is this taking place?

SHANKAR VEDANTAM: The mind relies on a number of rules of thumb, and one of the rules of thumb that it uses is that things that are more easily recalled are true even if the context in which they originally heard the statement was that the statement is false.

BOB GARFIELD: Now, if I understand your piece, when people hear a statement involving a negative – let’s say Saddam was not connected to 9/11 – and they hear it often enough, somehow the “not” disappears.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM: That’s right. What happens, unfortunately, is our denial of the myth ends up repeating the myth and makes the myth itself more accessible to people’s memory. And furthermore, as the separate study that you note points out, what happens very often is that the “not” in the sentence essentially falls off with time in many people’s memories.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: I want to ask you, then, about truth-squadding, since we’re in the midst of political races. Here’s the scenario: politician A makes horrendous charges against politician B, essentially lying about the opposition. A vigilant reporter notices this and does a truth-squadding article in the newspaper that says, no, this campaign ad is simply not true for the following reason. And politician B, of course, immediately starts attacking politician A for misrepresenting his or her record. Who wins?

SHANKAR VEDANTAM: I think invariably it’s going to be politician A. When you have people who are systematically trying to manipulate you, spread propaganda, for instance, and they repeat the same information over and over again, the fact that we are not very good at remembering where we heard a particular piece of information, we tend to believe that we have heard the information from multiple independent sources and therefore it must be true, rather than from the same untrustworthy source over and over again.

BOB GARFIELD: Now, the studies you’re talking about suggest that these effects take place irrespective of the bias of the listener. But there’s another study that suggests that if you are, in fact, predisposed to have a certain world view that misinformation sticks still more. Can you describe it?

SHANKAR VEDANTAM: There’s a new study that’s just been completed by Jason Reifler at Georgia State University where he actually looks at questions such as why it is that large numbers of people continue to believe that weapons of mass destruction were present in Iraq before the invasion or even found in Iraq after the invasion.

And what Jason and his colleagues did was try and give people the correct information. And what he found, ironically, is that partisans who wanted to believe that weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq, when told about the correct information, ended up believing ever more fervently that they were right and that the correct information was wrong.

BOB GARFIELD: And this would explain, for example, why, throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds, more than half of the population seems to believe that the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were the work of the U.S. government or Israel.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM: I think that’s right. What’s especially disturbing is that the number of people who believe that is actually growing over time. In the study I mentioned, 59 percent of Turks and Egyptians, 65 percent of Indonesians, 53 percent of Jordanians, even 56 percent of British Muslims do not believe that Arabs were behind the 9/11 attacks.

And so presenting them with the correct information, which, by the way, is our government’s strategy of combating myths and disinformation, does not seem to be a very effective approach.

BOB GARFIELD: So the truth will out, except when it doesn’t.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM: [LAUGHS] I guess you can say that. One thing that I should mention, Bob, is that when you’re trying to deny a falsehood, perhaps the most effective way of doing that is by not mentioning the original falsehood at all.

In other words, if someone said that Bob Garfield is for child prostitution, the right response is not Bob Garfield is not for child prostitution, but, rather, to say Bob Garfield is an upstanding journalist who believes in the finest tenets of journalism and runs a very popular show that’s heard widely by many millions of people around the world.

BOB GARFIELD: Ah – so, in other words, to replace one lie with another.


Shankar, thank you so much.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM: Thanks so much, Bob.

BOB GARFIELD: Shankar Vedantam is a reporter and columnist at The Washington Post.

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