Why. Won’t. Myths just die?

September 7th, 2007
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A very interesting and relevant post showed up on Slashdot recently: Why Myths Persist. It cites an article in the Washington Post, which hopefully will still be avaliable by the time you read this.

Research done into myths and urban legends has indicated some rather unsettling evidence that these inaccurate and disprovable beliefs can be harder to kill than one might think. However, it may not be that surprising when one considers that homeopathy just won’t seem to go away and many people still seem to think that Saddam Hussein was behind 9/11. I even know quite a few people who believe human blood is blue before it leaves the body, which is myth dating back hundreds of years.

The problem? It seems denying something does not necessarily make the negation stick in someone’s head. When, for example “I did not rob the bank,” people may come to associate you with robbing the bank. The “not” or other negation is lost in memory. And this seems to be something that is not necessarily countered by repeated information.

Yours truly with Adam Savage, well known for his work blowing up Myths
and an important ally in the fight against ignorance. Cohost of Mythbusters.


But there is something counter-intuitive to this, because obviously some myths do eventually die. Nobody thinks the world is flat, right? But the point here may be that it’s less important to say the world is “not flat” than it is “round.” (Even if not perfectly circular.) It does beg the question though, “Doesn’t anybody ever pay attention?” My experience is that some do, but not enough. This is especially true with subjects people don’t seem to take much interest in. Of course, the fact that people don’t find them interesting does not mean they are not important and won’t effect public policy when the misinformed head to the voting booths.

So, how does one fight this? The article indicates that when assertions are met with silence they are more likely to seem true. This seems like it puts one between a rock and a hard place, especially with things which are not easily expressed in positive logical way. (IE: Iraq was distinct from 9/11? Iraq was innocent of 9/11? It really equates to negation.) Even saying that the Roswell thing was a big to-do about a surveillance balloon implies “Not alien” if that is what the person had first strongly associated it with. Thus, you have some problems there.

My best idea, based on what I have seen: Either demonstrate it in a manner which is understandable and attention-getting, so it will be remembered. (Tip o’ the hat to Adam and Jamie over at Mythbusters) Or perhaps just make it the butt of jokes. People tend to remember jokes and dislike ridicule. So maybe with enough “Wow, that guy is so nutty he’s running from the chemtrails.” or “Man that was almost as dumb as those 9/11 conspiracy theorists claims.” At least that *seems* to have helped in a few cases, since terms like “Black Helicopters” or “Aluminum Foil Hat” now are synonymous with wacky, crazy, loony and so on.

Read the article though. It’s very worthwhile. It may be a bit disheartening though, as it seems things will continue to be an uphill battle.

This entry was posted on Friday, September 7th, 2007 at 10:38 am and is filed under Bad Science, Conspiracy Theories, Culture, Education. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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2 Responses to “Why. Won’t. Myths just die?”

  1. 1
    Depleted Cranium » Blog Archive » Why is it that some stupid beliefs last and some don’t? Says:

    [...] harmful psuedoscientific beliefs continue to exist and be popular in culture while others do not?  There have been explanations as to why many myths just will not die, but the fact is that some myths do die.   Today many in the public still hold faith in dowsing, [...]

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  2. 2
    Vjatcheslav Says:

    I’m not so sure that no one believes the earth not to be flat.

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