When do you convince someone when talking about scientific myths and when not?

This blog – in part also my life – is all about debunking myths about learning and education. Great. But an important question is: do I convince people by doing this. This new study by Christina Peter and Thomas Koch about reporting scientific information shows that when done wrong, it actually could strengthen the myth…

What they found is this:

Although myths and facts stories seem like an elegant way of communicating scientific information to the public, the results of the present study provide evidence for detrimental effects of correcting false information. In line with prior research, we found evidence that the backfire effect is a rather robust and systematic error.

And it gets even worse:

The study shows that after only a few minutes, people start to misremember originally false information as true, but only rarely misremember facts as false. After a delay of several days, about one out of four originally false statements is erroneously remembered as a fact, leading people to believe, for example, that the presented bowel cancer test is recommended by independent IGeL monitoring—although the presented article not only identified this statement as false but also pronounced that the IGeL monitoring rates the benefit of this test as uncertain due to a lack of scientific evidence.

And things can turn really bad:

Furthermore, we were able to confirm a connection between backfire errors and participants’ attitudes that also slightly increased over time: The more false statements (such as “The bowel cancer test is recommended by independent IGeL monitoring”) participants misremembered as true, the more favorable their attitudes toward the test became. This result shows that the backfire effect has momentous consequences: People not only systemati- cally misremember the truth of misinformation but also change their attitudes accordingly.

But what to do?

…there are two main recommendations for designing information campaigns that deal with immediate correction of misinformation or—as in our stimuli—for journalistic myths and facts stories: First, journalists could try to work only with facts and not repeat common myths about the issue at all (Skurnik et al., 2007). Yet this might bear the risk that facts and myths will coexist in people’s memory. A second strategy could benefit from the results regarding judgment-formation strategies: If campaign designers or journalists repeat myths to correct them, they should encourage readers to form attitudes during reception, for example, by inserting claims like “What is your opinion?” or “Make up your mind!” If such indications are in fact sufficient in triggering immediate judgments, this needs to be investigated by future research. However, it has to be noted that such claims may only be helpful in debunking myths for journalistic myths and facts stories or information campaigns where myths are immediately rectified. If myths are published and only rectified after some time has passed (…), triggering immediate judgments may not have any benefits or might even be counterproductive by contributing to the solidification of a myth.

Abstract of the study:

When reporting scientific information, journalists often present common myths that are refuted with scientific facts. However, correcting misinformation this way is often not only ineffective but can increase the likelihood that people misremember it as true. We test this backfire effect in the context of journalistic coverage and examine how to counteract it. In a web-based experiment, we find evidence for a systematic backfire effect that occurs after a few minutes and strengthens after five days. Results show that forming judgments immediately during reception (in contrast to memory-based) can reduce backfire effects and prevent erroneous memory from affecting participants’ attitudes.

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