I’m just going to lift this straight from Slashdot (much nerdy discussion found there as usual), which refers to an article on the Washington Post. Most “In It” readers will probably find this interesting.
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.
Climate Spin advocates the silent treatment. Atmoz recommends the calm rebuttal. The research does not bear out that either approach is effective in reaching the tangentially interested, which in a democracy typically constitutes the ruling majority. I recommend ridicule as a useful strategy. It’s fun, it’s harmless at worst, and it works on the adolescent subconscious in all of us very nicely. “If I take this idea seriously but it’s as silly as these uncontrolably giggling people say, people will be able to mock me and thereby reduce my perceived reproductive fitness.”
Effective ridicule needs to be deft, of course, but I really think it is an appropriate adaptation. The organized opposition is increasingly ludicrous on many points. Making this clear to the casual observer will go a long way to short circuiting endless discussion on matters that ought to be behind us by now.
Update: A very relevant article by Eliezer Yudkovsky appears on Overcoming Bias which refers to several older studies on a related matter. Which do you think is more common, murder or suicide? Your likelihood of getting such questions wrong correlates strongly with press coverage. The money quote from that article:
Using “availability” seems to give rise to an absurdity bias; events that have never happened, are not recalled, and hence deemed to have probability zero.
which may have something to do with 50% of Fortune 1000 executives disbelief in the likelihood of substantial impacts from climate change.