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The Media Science

Why Myths Persist 988

Posted by kdawson
from the say-it-first-and-say-it-loud dept.
lottameez recommends an article in the Washington Post about recent research into the persistence of myths. In short: once a myth has been put out there (e.g., "Saddam Hussein plotted the 9/11 attacks"), denying it can paradoxically reinforce its staying power. Ignoring it doesn't work either — a claim that is unchallenged gains the ring of truth. Over time, "negation tags" fall out of memory: "Saddam didn't plan 9/11" becomes "Saddam planned 9/11." 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 is painting a broad new understanding of how the mind works. Contrary to the conventional notion that people absorb information in a deliberate manner, the studies show that the brain uses subconscious 'rules of thumb' that can bias it into thinking that false information is true. Clever manipulators can take advantage of this tendency."
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Why Myths Persist

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  • And.... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by suso (153703) * on Wednesday September 05, 2007 @07:00AM (#20477317) Homepage Journal
    It took 5000 years to come to this conclusion?

    Maybe this explains why religion persists in the face of logic, it was here before science.
    • Re:And.... (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Bucc5062 (856482) <bucc5062NO@SPAMgmail.com> on Wednesday September 05, 2007 @07:13AM (#20477427)
      Belief in a power greater then ourselves is not about logic. It is about faith. Religion is a man made construction around Faith in something greater and a poor one at that.

      Science and Faith can co-exist. I believe in God and how that Faith helps shape and guide my life. I also believe in Science, in it's ability to help describe the world around me from the smallest quark to the farthest sun. Science only reaffirms my Faith in this way, each time "We" (mankind) say this is the barrier, this is the absolute; Science through discovery pushes past that barrier. In fact I propose that there are leaps of Faith in Scientific discovery that only later logic will describe. For me those leaps are our moments of touching the God that is inside us.

      Faith is not about logic and why it will endure along with logic.
      • Re:And.... (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Yaztromo (655250) <yaztromo@mac. c o m> on Wednesday September 05, 2007 @07:28AM (#20477575) Homepage Journal

        Belief in a power greater then ourselves is not about logic. It is about faith.

        Well, you can call it that if it makes you feel better, but the rest of us just call that "wishful thinking".

        I have little doubt your faith makes you feel good inside, but then again, so does a hit to a heroin addict.

        Of course, assuming TFA is valid, my denying the entire notion of your "faith" will probably re-enforce it. So you're welcome. Enjoy it in good health.

        Yaz.

      • Re:And.... (Score:5, Insightful)

        by gvc (167165) on Wednesday September 05, 2007 @07:57AM (#20477861)
        We all have faith. For example, I have absolute faith that if I jump up I will fall back to earth.

        Not all faith is created equal. My faith that I will fall back to earth is, I daresay, more rational than that of somebody who believes he or she will fly away. That's because the latter is not only unsupported by, but contradicted by, our understanding of the natural world.

        So I can split faith into four categories:

            1. faith in things supported by our observations
            2. faith in things for which there is no evidence but could
                  conceivably be observed
            3. faith in things that by definition can never be observed
            4. faith in things for which contradict our observations

        Categories 2 and 3 are, in my opinion, harmless but useless.
        Category 4 is harmful.

        Personally, I stick to category 1 and am a devout athiest.
        Many mainstream religions and a large number of individuals
        stick to categories 2 and 3. Except, perhaps, as far as
        the historical record is concerned (paranormal events caused
        by the intervention of metaphysical beings). It is easy enough
        to agree to disagree on these matters.

        The problem, of course, is category 4.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by gillbates (106458)

          faith in things supported by our observations

          Why then would you be an atheist? Miracles have been observed for the past 4,000 years. Man's notion of God's existence is the longest held tenet in the written history of our existence. It would seem that if it were incorrect, we would have found out by now.

          The interesting thing is that other methods of knowing - such as scientific discovery - have not only been wrong, but spectacularly so. From the Golden Age of Greece until the Renaissance, it was

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Scrameustache (459504)

          We all have faith. For example, I have absolute faith that if I jump up I will fall back to earth.
          That's not faith, that's memory.
          You learned this as an infant, before you learned language your brain calibrated to the world it perceived and recorded that things fall... things always fall.

          It's not faith, it's observed fact.
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by DougWebb (178910)

          So I can split faith into four categories:

          1. faith in things supported by our observations

          ...

          Personally, I stick to category 1 and am a devout athiest.

          You have faith that your observations accurately reflect reality. This is a faith that underlies all of science, and generally goes unacknowledged.

          You know that your observations are all analyzed by your brain, and you know that your brain gets its information from your nervous system and your senses. You also know that it's possible to stimulate

        • Re:And.... (Score:4, Insightful)

          by abertoll (460221) on Wednesday September 05, 2007 @08:16PM (#20488739) Homepage Journal
          Hmmm... I don't consider #1 to be under the category of "faith." I think the word "faith" must involve some belief without evidence.
      • by kestasjk (933987)

        Science only reaffirms my Faith in this way, each time "We" (mankind) say this is the barrier, this is the absolute; Science through discovery pushes past that barrier.

        In fact I propose that there are leaps of Faith in Scientific discovery that only later logic will describe. For me those leaps are our moments of touching the God that is inside us.

        Using "leap of faith" to mean "an intuition" and "faith" to mean religious belief is (purposely?) misleading. Since when is the word "faith" in "leap of faith" capitalized?

        Faith (in a religious context) is belief without evidence, by definition. Science is "belief" with evidence, by definition. They're exactly opposite. They co-exist like war and peace.

        And to sneak "faith" in as playing a part in scientific discoveries is an insult to the work of every scientist.

  • Astounding! (Score:5, Funny)

    by vrmlguy (120854) <samwyse@NoSpAm.gmail.com> on Wednesday September 05, 2007 @07:03AM (#20477343) Homepage Journal
    This is the most amazing thing I've seen since I founded Slashdot.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by richie2000 (159732)

      This is the most amazing thing I've seen since I founded Slashdot.
      You did not found Slashdot.

      Oh.

      Damn.
  • by dominux (731134) on Wednesday September 05, 2007 @07:09AM (#20477395) Homepage
    or such is the Myth they are trying to manipulate.
  • Saddam (Score:5, Funny)

    by iogan (943605) on Wednesday September 05, 2007 @07:10AM (#20477405) Homepage
    Wait, you mean Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11? Then why did you guys invade Iraq?
    • "...don't worry dad, I'll get him."
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday September 05, 2007 @07:10AM (#20477407)
    Why not extend the slant, which wasn't present in the article, to go both ways? I can't tell you how many people I know who believe Gore won Florida and base it on the idea that major media sources verified it. You can go show them the opposite and they don't care.

    What it comes down to is this, people are more inclined to believe stories which correspond to what they already believe to be true, even if the evidence against such a belief is overwhelming. It is all about change and accepting mistakes. There are too many people resistant to change and resistant to admitting mistakes.
    • The reality is the people of Florida were denied their democratic process. Both parties asked for incomplete and biased remedies. The Florida Supreme Court, sorted that out and ruled for all the votes to be counted, according to the current law.

      That meant each county was to establish it's standard, then perform the count.

      We really don't know who won Florida, which is exactly why a lot of people call Bush "Selected, not Elected".

      SCOTUS jumped in and made a bizzare ruling, essentially stopping the process.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by UdoKeir (239957)
      Gore didn't win Florida, the SCOTUS put a stop to that.

      He did, however, poll more votes than Bush. http://www.commondreams.org/views01/1115-02.htm [commondreams.org]

      If Katherine Harris had executed her legally required duty to conduct a recount of the entire state of Florida, Gore would have won Florida. But she didn't and she got a nice seat in congress as her reward for breaking the law.
  • Avoiding negations (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Rakshasa Taisab (244699) on Wednesday September 05, 2007 @07:13AM (#20477429) Homepage
    So when informing the public about false information, one should avoid using negations?

    Instead of saying "Saddam Hussein was not involved in 9/11.", you should instead say something like "It was al-qaida, who didn't particularly like Saddam Hussein, that were responsible for 9/11."
    • by bigdavex (155746) on Wednesday September 05, 2007 @07:38AM (#20477673)
      From the article:

      Rather than say, as Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) recently did during a marathon congressional debate, that "Saddam Hussein did not attack the United States; Osama bin Laden did," Mayo said it would be better to say something like, "Osama bin Laden was the only person responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks" -- and not mention Hussein at all.

  • Isn't the 'Saddam planned 9/11' myth a bad example. It would seem to me that even among the populace that this is increasingly known to be false. It may not be a large %, but that % is growing.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by mbrod (19122)
      I think it was used as the example for reasons of the repercussions of that specific propaganda, not the percent of sheeple who believe it.

      Also, as stated in the article, people are much more likely to believe a myth that they simply want to believe, regardless of truth. People want to believe their tax dollars (and blood) are funding a valiant effort that is good against an evil enemy. Hence, any myth brought up that makes the enemy sound more evil, is also more likely to be believed regardless of how true
  • by SEMW (967629) on Wednesday September 05, 2007 @07:15AM (#20477447)
  • Negation (Score:5, Interesting)

    by zeromorph (1009305) on Wednesday September 05, 2007 @07:18AM (#20477471)

    Negation (in natural language) is a tricky business, even if we forget about the psychological part for a minute. Just to give one example:

    Presuppositions [wikipedia.org] - I have seen her again. and I haven't seen her again again. both presuppose that I saw her (before) so large parts of what I say persist under negation.

    In addition, results from psycho-linguistic research suggest that negation involves some sort of double processing, that is we transform a negative statement in an equivalent positive one before we further process it. That in all this the negated statement stay activated and is thus reinforced is more than plausible.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by mwvdlee (775178)
      So basically, Bush didn't start a another pointless war, when he invaded Iraq?
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Old Wolf (56093)
      Negation (in natural language) is a tricky business, even if we forget about the psychological part for a minute.

      I could care less
  • by Ellis D. Tripp (755736) on Wednesday September 05, 2007 @07:18AM (#20477479) Homepage
    interests within our government and defense industry worked VERY HARD on inventing and perpetuating it. And our corporate media did their usual lapdog routine, and went along without questioning anything.

    • by Attila Dimedici (1036002) on Wednesday September 05, 2007 @07:52AM (#20477805)
      What I want to know is, who in the Administration EVER said that Saddam plotted 9/11? I never heard that said. I have heard people who oppose the Bush Administration say that the Bush Administration said it, but I have never heard a quote from the Bush Administration saying (or implying) it.
      • The justification used in the run-up to the war was quite similar to this [cnn.com]:

        WASHINGTON (CNN) -- From the Oval Office, President Clinton told the nation Wednesday evening why he ordered new military strikes against Iraq.

        The president said Iraq's refusal to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors presented a threat to the entire world.

        "Saddam (Hussein) must not be allowed to threaten his neighbors or the world with nuclear arms, poison gas or biological weapons," Clinton said.

        Operation Desert Fox, a strong, sust
        • by Chris Burke (6130) on Wednesday September 05, 2007 @11:03AM (#20480701) Homepage
          Bush's and Clinton's speeches were virtually identical. The only instance of an administration official even relating Iraq and 9/11 happened well after the war had been approved and had begun, I believe it was Rumsfeld.

          Rumsfeld related Iraq and 9/11 days after it happened when he suggested we should attack Iraq instead of Afghanistan. As far as public statements, they never explicitly said Saddam caused 9/11, they only mentioned the two things constantly within the same sentence. Dick Cheney went so far as to actually imply a causal relationship, saying Mohammad Atta had met with senior Iraqi officials in Prague just months prior to 9/11. And he even started by saying "I'm not saying that Saddam was involved in plotting 9/11 for certain, but..." What's this article about? How even negating a myth can cause it to be reinforced? Well how about just not saying it's specifically true, just here's a bunch of statements that suggest so?

          Strange how if they never said it, so many people believed it. Of course the whole point was to create the connection in people's minds, but to do it in such a way that they couldn't technically be accused of lying.

          P.S. I don't care that Clinton used some of the same justifications for his make-Congress-happy-take-attention-from-my-problem s bullshit. He's a lying bastard too. At least he managed get us stuck in a war.

          The truth is, Hussein had an obligation to prove that he had destroyed his WMDs. He did possess them before, and by the terms of the ceasefire for Desert Storm, he had to prove to weapons inspectors that they had been neutralized. He failed to do this. For more than a decade. That alone was proper justification for the invasion.

          Don't use the weapon inspectors as justification for the invasion when the weapon inspectors' opinion was ignored. The statements made by the admin, particularly Rumsfeld when he said that not only did Iraq have weapons as a certainty, we also "know where they are". No, they didn't. And according to the inspectors, Saddam's weapons program was disabled.

          The idea that we attacked Iraq for complicity in 9/11 didn't show up until well after the war had begun, after US troops failed to discover any significant caches of NCB arms. Those that opposed the administration found it to be an effective strawman.

          Oh, right, it was a strawman invention of Bush's opponents. And those clever bastards somehow forced Dick Cheney to keep repeating it!

          No, the "Iraq is part of the war on terror -- remember 9/11" justification is what the administration started to push harder after the "Iraq has WMDs!" justification fell through. It was part of it all along, it was just second fiddle to the WMD claims which were what were truly effective in gaining support from the populace.

          Of course, I'd love to be proven wrong on this. If anyone can dig up a pre-war speech that accused Hussein of plotting 9/11, I'd love to be corrected.

          Enjoy [mtholyoke.edu]. Try searching for "specific allegation" to get to the part where he can't exactly say Iraq caused 9/11, he just has "credible" intelligence that might imply it.

      • by acvh (120205) <geek.mscigars@com> on Wednesday September 05, 2007 @08:18AM (#20478143) Homepage
        "What I want to know is, who in the Administration EVER said that Saddam plotted 9/11? I never heard that said. I have heard people who oppose the Bush Administration say that the Bush Administration said it, but I have never heard a quote from the Bush Administration saying (or implying) it."

        That's the point! They didn't have to say it. They only had to keep mentioning 9/11 and Saddam in the same sentence, or in close proximity, to make the association become real for many people. Shit like, "But come back to 9/11 again, and one of the real concerns about Saddam Hussein, as well, is his biological weapons capability; the fact that he may, at some point, try to use smallpox, anthrax, plague, some other kind of biological agent against other nations, possibly including even the United States." (Dick Cheney, Meet the Press, 9/8/2002), did the job just fine.

        Or this one, same interview: "I'm not here today to make a specific allegation that Iraq was somehow responsible for 9/11. I can't say that. On the other hand, since we did that interview, new information has come to light. And we spent time looking at that relationship between Iraq, on the one hand, and the al-Qaeda organization on the other. And there has been reporting that suggests that there have been a number of contacts over the years. We've seen in connection with the hijackers, of course, Mohamed Atta, who was the lead hijacker, did apparently travel to Prague on a number of occasions. And on at least one occasion, we have reporting that places him in Prague with a senior Iraqi intelligence official a few months before the attack on the World Trade Center. The debates about, you know, was he there or wasn't he there, again, it's the intelligence business."

        Pretty cute, huh? "I'm not here to make a SPECIFIC allegation", just a general one.

        So, yes. The Bush administration did set out to imply that Hussein was involved with 9/11, but more importantly, to create the illusion that we could seek justice/revenge for 9/11 by attacking Iraq.

  • The first half (Score:5, Informative)

    by Trevelyan (535381) on Wednesday September 05, 2007 @07:21AM (#20477503)
    That link is to the second page, for those that like to read from the start here is the first page [washingtonpost.com]

    It seems that unless you have an account you can't click the links on the page to go back to the first page, but you can click next (from the first) and you can get to either page externally. Don't ask me why.
  • In other words (Score:4, Insightful)

    by DaveV1.0 (203135) on Wednesday September 05, 2007 @07:27AM (#20477551) Journal
    There are many stupid people who will believe whatever they want to believe, regardless of proof. They will generally want to force you to believe what they believe even if you have proof that directly contradicts them. And, if you refuse to believe, they may try to silence.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Compholio (770966)
      Wizard's First Rule:

      People are stupid; given proper motivation, almost anyone will believe almost anything. Because people are stupid, they will believe a lie because they want to believe it's true, or because they are afraid it might be true. People's heads are full of knowledge, facts, and beliefs, and most of it is false, yet they think it all true. People are stupid; they can only rarely tell the difference between a lie and the truth, and yet they are confident they can, and so are all the easier to f

  • by moshennik (826059) on Wednesday September 05, 2007 @07:30AM (#20477601)
    "I have never had sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. I've never had an affair with her." He should have just said "I went to lunch with my wife.. we had a cigar".
  • Also known as... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by AWG (621868) on Wednesday September 05, 2007 @07:40AM (#20477685)
    In his book, The Black Swan [wikipedia.org], Nassim Taleb [wikipedia.org] calls this the "narrative fallacy". Interesting stuff. Especially when you consider it specifically in realms of (seeming) randomness like finance. Who knows why the market fell yesterday? No one. But you can bet the front page of the Wall Street Journal will have a nice little blurb explaining the cause behind the effect. This little 'narrative' is not easily disprovable and our brains love it! It requires conscious thought and force of will to unlink these types of things and approach them with the level of respect that such unpredictability deserves.
  • by acvh (120205) <geek.mscigars@com> on Wednesday September 05, 2007 @08:01AM (#20477921) Homepage
    This article, and the study it references, is more about how to make people believe lies than about why myths persist. Defining your terms is important, and this just cries out to be misconstrued (and based on what I see in this discussion, it already is being used to foster the tedious "science vs. religion" argument.

    The phenomenon being studied is more about how to associate two unrelated pieces of information so that people will begin to think they are connected, or how to plant a lie so that people will eventually believe it to be true. This is nothing new: everyone from politicians to writers to artists to horny teenagers have been doing this forever. The current studies are showing more of the details of how it happens.

    Dr. Thompson recognized and clearly defined this phenomenon: make your opponent deny that he rapes barnyard animals and you're home free. "I am not a pigfucker", no matter how true a statement, will not get you elected.

  • by Colin Smith (2679) on Wednesday September 05, 2007 @08:45AM (#20478525)
    He published several papers and articles on the use of propaganda.

    It might leave a bad taste in your mouth, but you have to know your enemy.
     
  • by Peter Trepan (572016) on Wednesday September 05, 2007 @08:53AM (#20478653)

    ...given the fact that we only use ten percent of our brains. :)

  • by srmalloy (263556) on Wednesday September 05, 2007 @09:44AM (#20479431) Homepage
    However, denials of a rumor can work to destroy a myth if they are directed to play into popular preconceptions. For example, back in the 1970s, a rumor spread that McDonald's used worms in the meat for its burgers. The company issued press releases, denying the rumors:

    Newsweek: At an Atlanta press conference, McDonald's officials, backed by a regional officer of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, denounced the rumors as "completely unfounded and unsubstantiated," and swore that the company's hamburgers contain nothing but beef.
    This was not sufficient to quash the rumors; the owner of four McDonald's restaurants in the Atlanta area saw his sales drop by 30%, forcing him to lay off a third of his employees. But it was Ray Kroc, who had bought the chain from the original owners back in 1955, who delivered the most telling rebuttal, which exploited the "profit-hungry corporation" stereotype:

    "We couldn't afford to grind worms into our meat. Hamburger costs a dollar and a half a pound, and night crawlers six dollars."
  • Myths != Lies (Score:3, Interesting)

    by 12357bd (686909) on Wednesday September 05, 2007 @10:28AM (#20480079)

    Many posts assumes myths are plain and simple lies (religion/politics/etc).

    But there are another reason for myths: The wish to overcome our limited memories. Take the Diluve episode, exist in almost all the big (and not so big) cultures around the world, and in some traditions it is explicitely stated that the history/tale have to be told to transfer the knowledge that something so terrible that descendants will not believe it to be true had really happened.

    So our memories are really limited, it's not strange that not literate cultures 'invented' myths as an efficient (time wise) transmission method.

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