Nothing is harder to dislodge than a myth that has taken root.
It would make Sisyphus appreciate his rock.
A good friend reminded me of that by sending me to website of the NPR program "On the Media," which dedicated last weekend's edition to that very subject.
Host Brooke Gladstone interviewed political scientist Brendan Nyhan on the persistence of certain stories even after they have been proven to be false.
It was a little disheartening to hear someone who has studied the nature of these misperceptions confess that it's virtually impossible to correct misinformation that people want to believe.
"People were so successful at bringing to mind reasons that the correction was wrong that they actually ended up being more convinced in the misperception than the people who didn't receive the correction," he said. "So the correction, in other words, was making things worse."
For example, Nyhan said you get nowhere simply saying "Obama is not a Muslim" because people tend to forget the "not" and the original statement in all its glorious wrongness is merely reinforced.
Instead, Nyhan's team tested the approach of saying, "I'm not a Muslim" against an alternative, "I'm a Christian." In fact, that would have been my advice, but Nyhan admitted that it only worked some of the time.
"When non-white students were interviewing respondents to the study, the message seemed to work, and, in particular, with Republicans, the group that was most likely to hold the misperception," he said. "But when it was only white students administering the experiment was precisely the opposite, the correction appeared to actually make things worse."
It seems that,
when the non-white students were present, people were giving responses that didn't line up with their unconscious associations of Obama, i.e., he's black. As Nyhan politely put it, using non-white interviewers "may have created an environment that people weren't comfortable saying what they really thought."
Clearly frustrated herself, Gladstone asked Nyhan if there is any way to correct misperceptions. His advice was to take the battle to the source of these myths.
"I think the most effective approach is to go after elites, to shame the people who are promoting these things, who are putting them out there," he said. "At some point, people have to be cast out of polite society. You have to simply say, that is irresponsible and we're not going to give you our air time, our print to make that sort of a claim. Politicians and talk radio hosts, they're going to push these things when it’s in their interest to do so. It’s a simple cost-benefit calculation. What I want to do is increase the cost."
People like Ann Coulter and Michael Moore are hard to shame, but it's worth trying.
Sisyphus move over.