The difficulty of debunking a myth

[This blog focuses on climate and energy issues from the perspective of science, solutions, and politics. Nothing will be more important to the future of climate and energy policy than the 2008 presidential election. And rhetorical strategy is one of my favorite subjects. So very occasionally I will focus more on rhetoric than the policy. I’ll keep the content below the jump. Nonetheless, this post does have direct relevance to the climate debate.]

You can tell that while Obama is a terrific rhetorician, he and his ad team don’t understand a core principle of rhetoric. Never repeat the word your opponent is trying to push. Never say things like “They’re going to say I’m a risky guy. What they’re going to argue is I’m too risky.” All that does is plant in the listener’s mind the word “risky” associated directly with Obama. It’s like saying, “I’m not a crook.”

Never say things like “You can’t be a maverick when politically it’s working for you and not a maverick when it doesn’t work for you, when you received your party’s nomination.” Never run an ad with a picture of your opponent that opens, “He’s the original maverick” and ends “The original maverick?” That’s especially true because “maverick” is such a strong word.

When voters go into the voting booth, especially the key voters the campaigns are targeting with these ads that don’t actually pay close attention to the race, they focus on just a few key thoughts and words. The last thing you want to do is repeat and reinforce your opponent’s message.

The bottom line is you can’t debunk a myth by verbally repeating it. This is actually quite basic stuff, not just a long-standing principle of rhetoric, but something demonstrated by numerous recent psychological studies, as a Washington Post article from a year ago explained, see “Persistence of Myths Could Alter Public Policy Approach.”

By the way, this has important relevance for climate messaging. When speaking or communicating to the public, you should not repeat myths in order to debunk them, but rather focus on the facts of the problem and the solution. Yes, some people believe that all debunking is counterproductive (see “Chris Mooney: Does refuting Deniers only strengthen and empower them?“) But obviously some debunking must occur, or else the myths go unchallenged. The trick is as much as possible to focus on the truth and not on repeating the lie. This is sometimes a difficult principle to live by, and so it always bears repeating.

Let me review a little of the psychological literature:

In one 1990 study, undergraduate students observed sugar from a labeled commercial container as it was poured into two bottles. They then labeled one bottle “sugar” and the other “Not Sodium Cyanide.” Students avoided eating sugar from the second bottle even though they had watched it being poured and “even though they had arbitrarily placed that label on it” and knew the label was accurate–that it was not sodium cyanide. Such is the power of words or, rather, the insidious lack of power of the word ‘not.’

Even more insidious, “when people find a claim familiar because of prior exposure but do not recall the original context or source of the claim, they tend to think that the claim is true,” as noted a 2005 journal article, “How Warnings about False Claims Become Recommendations,” which concluded

Telling people that a consumer claim is false can make them misremember it as true. In two experiments, older adults were especially susceptible to this “illusion of truth” effect. Repeatedly identifying a claim as false helped older adults remember it as false in the short term but paradoxically made them more likely to remember it as true after a 3 day delay. This unintended effect of repetition comes from increased familiarity with the claim itself but decreased recollection of the claim’s original context. Findings provide insight into susceptibility over time to memory distortions and exploitation via repetition of claims in media and advertising.

As explained in a Washington Post article from a year ago explained, “Persistence of Myths Could Alter Public Policy Approach“:

Indeed, repetition seems to be a key culprit. Things that are repeated often become more accessible in memory, and one of the brain’s subconscious rules of thumb is that easily recalled things are true.

Another useful article is ” ‘I am not guilty’ vs ‘I am innocent’ ” by Ruth Mayo et al in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology in 2004, which found that for many people, the “negation tag” of a denial falls off with time:

“If someone says, ‘I did not harass her,’ I associate the idea of harassment with this person,” said Mayo, explaining why people who are accused of something but are later proved innocent find their reputations remain tarnished. “Even if he is innocent, this is what is activated when I hear this person’s name again.”If you think 9/11 and Iraq, this is your association, this is what comes in your mind,” she added. “Even if you say it is not true, you will eventually have this connection with Saddam Hussein and 9/11.”

Mayo found that rather than deny a false claim, it is better to make a completely new assertion that makes no reference to the original myth.

The last one is I think the key point for messaging. Don’t repeat the false claim.

18 Responses to The difficulty of debunking a myth

  1. Robert says:

    I’m interested in what Climate Progress’s agenda really is. It seems more about supporting the Democratic party than exploring climate change. From a quick Google the funding seems to start from the Democracy Alliance, an organisation set up to support the Democratic Party.


    “The Democracy Alliance tries to keep a low profile and its wealthy donors prefer anonymity. According to published reports, organizations funded by Democracy Alliance are asked not to reveal the funding.”

    No objection to this, but (Joe) you would have more credibility if you were more up front about it.

  2. Daniel Haran says:

    Robert – I think Joe’s made his leanings rather clear, so there’s no need to dig funding sources to infer any hidden agenda.

  3. john says:


    If you are for taking action on climate change, you must be against the positions of the Republican Party. It’s that simple. Bush in particular, has been a disaster on this issue, along with his enablers in the Republican Party leadership.

    So, the “agnda” is to support those who are proactive on climate, and oppose those who aren’t.

  4. Joe says:

    I am a big fan of what Arnold Schwarzenegger is doing. Indeed, I think he has shown more leadership on this subject than any other governing political leader in this country.

    Fundamentally, climate change ought to be a completely nonpartisan issue, but conservatives have decided they would rather win an election than preserve the health and well-being of future generations.

    The funders of the Center for American Progress are a matter of public record and it wouldn’t take you very long to find them. I can assure you, for whatever it is worth, I have never received a single phone call from any funder telling me what to write or what not to write. Indeed, I have complete editorial control of this blog.

    And to expand on what Daniel said, I have probably written more than half a million words on this blog, so the notion that any of my agenda is hidden is kind of funny.

    But if you have a different way of avoiding catastrophic climate impacts, Robert, than what has been laid out on this blog, I long to hear them.

  5. Dennis says:


    Given that one of the Bush administration’s first acts upon entering office was to go back on its promise to support the Kyoto protocols and its continuting denials and delays related to climate science, I’m not the slightest bit concerned about what Climate Progress’s “agenda” is. I’m willing to bet that the Republican Party’s 2008 platform will be so thoroughly weasel-worded about climate change that it will be nearly indistinguishable from the Bush administration’s. And McCain will be equally obtuse. Obama’s not perfect, but he won’t deny the science the way the Republican Party has and he will offer solutions that are genuine and address the real subject matter.

  6. paulm says:

    Great post!

    I can now see why Gore and his climate change message has/is having such a hard time being accepted by much of the public.

  7. Greg N says:

    Interesting piece.

    What you’re maybe missing is something that could be described as “correct deployment of troops”.

    You, and a few others here, are the generals – highly skilled at presenting a message and getting it to hit home to the major decision makers who matter.

    I’m one of the GIs – trying to do my bit but frankly without the wide-ranging science and political knowledge needed for the top levels.

    Likewise, the deniers have their generals (Pielke Jr?) and a lot of foot soldiers (a hell of a lot of them, it sometimes seems, but usually of a very low standard!)

    It doesn’t make sense for the top brass to waste time combatting the foot soldiers. Your skills and time are too valuable to waste on attempting to beat back the tide of silly/deliberately lying/misinformed blog posts!

    What I’m trying to say is: reserve your rhetoric to the debates that matter. Meanwhile give us GIs some guidance, like in your post, on how to deal with false claims – and leave us to get on with it.

    So more posts on techniques will be welcome, but don’t feel you have to get stuck into any of the silly skirmishes!

  8. rpauli says:

    My father liked to remind me of the 1st Law of Political Anthropogenic Hubris (PAH Law) which says ‘that human hot air alone can never be converted to effective work’. I could not break that law.

    Modern humans continue trying to use ideology to influence global temperature — even trying locally, such as watching a pot boil. This has never worked. Alas only a slight increase in human body temperature appeared after loud discussions and even here a direct cause could not be established.

    Despite constant failure, humans will keep trying to use pure emotions derived from their politics, religion and hubris to effect physical change in their environment.

    Fortunately, our atmosphere and oceans do not follow politics – so trends and changes will proceed according to known physical and thermodynamic laws.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Joe, good essay. To take a specific example, the Prius vs. Hummer energy lie, it sounds like instead of replying to the topic directly, we should link to your article, renamed something like “Confirmed: Hummer Earns Huge Energy Hog Title”. That way, the (correct) take-home message is stated properly.

    [JR: Excellent Point — Nothing is harder to do than practice what one preaches. But at the very least, I have my commenters to keep me honest. I have now put a sticky on my screen to remind me, along with “posture” and “Don’t bury the lede”!]

  10. John Hollenberg says:

    Joe, good essay. To take a specific example, the Prius vs. Hummer energy lie, it sounds like instead of replying to the topic directly, we should link to your article, renamed something like “Confirmed: Hummer Earns Huge Energy Hog Title”. That way, the (correct) take-home message is stated properly.

  11. Larry Coleman says:

    This is a very discouraging post. If one does not confront the myth by debunking, but instead present a positive-only statement that addresses the real truth of the matter, it would seem that you have left the myth standing so that people come away with the notion that, “Well, the experts disagree once again.” Not the impression one wants to leave.

    Beyond that, however, I have to wonder whether studies like the one with sugar are relevant to, say myths about energy or climate change. One interpretation of that study is that people are reacting to an existing, deep-seated, cultural fear of sodium cyanide. There is no corresponding fear-object when it comes to inflating tires. There must be many more studies along these lines not subject to this criticism, but if the conclusion holds up, it makes our task much more difficult.

  12. Ronald says:

    Well, there is not doubt how the republican party wants to paint Obama as and that is as a clown. Or as a cartoon. How stupid to pass out tire air gauges and say ‘this is Obama’s energy program!’ Which is why its not stupid at all, they will just wear him down in peoples eyes.

    Which is also why he has to have a good Vice President candidate. Someone who can talk back to these people with a tough, rough attitude instead of that nice logical guy that Obama is giving us now.

    Politics is a rough business. So I suppose is all influencing of public opinion, especially if that public just wants to listen to the easy and entertaining.

    Thanks for the information about debunking myths.

  13. Paul K says:

    Did the content of this post change? I thought I read there were four stories in an election: your story, his story, your story about him and his story about you. I think that’s a wonderful framework to discuss Obama’s rhetorical strategy. Perhaps it is too close to elective politics for a Center for American Progress blog. I hope not.

    Obama is an excellent writer and prepared speaker, but he is not a natural rhetorician. He says uh uh uh way too much. He does not seem to understand that every word he says can be blown out of proportion and even be misrepresented. Today’s “gaffe” with the seven year old girl is typical. Everyone is now arguing whether he said inappropriately negative things about America. It drowns out the rest of his message. Tomorrow someone will ask him to explain his remarks and the explanation will dominate the news after a week of tire pressure

    Watch the video. The girl asks him why he decided to run for president. He responded, “Uh uh uh” and it was downhill from there.

    [JR: Yes, the content changed after I did more research for the version of this on HuffingtonPost. I will probably come back to the other article.]

    As Claude Raines said in Casablanca, “I am shocked that there is gambling going on around here.”

  14. Hey says:

    If Joe’s point is true, I can only congratulate him:

    Steve McIntyre, after 3 years asking to be given some data from Wahl & Ammann and getting all kind of “delayer” responses from the science magazines, the IPCC and the author himself, has finally been able to reach the Supplementary Information of one of their articles. This information is important because it proves McIntyre’s point. The relevance of this issue is that it proves that the Hockey Stick is WRONG because it has no statistical significance (you can get a hockey stick from red noise just by using W&A’s invalid methods). W&A have been making claims of a 99.99% significance in dendros reconstruction like that of MBH98, based on premises that they didn’t want to release (because it was invalid and had been rejected twice by official publications), and that once relased, show the opposite that they were claiming.

    The good news for the alarmists is that, as McIntyre can now claim that the Hockey Stick defense performed by W&A is a complete fraud, following Joe’s reasoning, this will make people remember the Hockey Stick as something undoubtedly true. Congratulations!

    Read all the related information here:

    Especially worth reading comment 16 from McIntyre himself, explaining the whole story and comparing it to what true scientists did in a different case with a different topic.

    Most of the IPCC AR4 claims in the Paleoclimate chapter relied on W&A’s article. I bet realclimate won’t comment on this.

  15. Sean says:

    I want to add to what “Hey” says. If you want to present a positive claim, and you want people to believe it, then publish all the data that led you to the conclusion. That way, people can review the data (if they have the expertise) and come to the same conclusion.

    I have a very simple, minimum standard for scientific claims and it’s called reproducibility:

    Has the author published all the raw data and the methodology he or she employed for each step, such that another expert can reproduce the results of the study?

    Whether the expert may agree or disagree with the methodology is a separate matter. If they don’t have enough information to even reproduce the result, then the author is either sloppy or hiding something.

    In the case of W&A referred to above, it looks like they were hiding something (i.e. the fact that W&A threw out all data that didn’t fit their claim and then said the remaining data was 99% consistent with their claim).

    But regardless, with their 2 year’s delayed release of the Supplementary Information, at least W&A now meets the minimum standard of reproducibility. You can now follow their steps and get their result.

    Many of the most commonly cited articles in Climate Science (inlcuding Mann’s foundational hockey stick graph and virtually all of Briffa’s work) do not yet meet this standard.

    McIntyre has been literally begging them to release their data and their methodology (Briffa in particular) and they have so far refused.

    And so if their goal is to convince people, sounds like they are playing from a different playbook than the one Joe suggests above.

  16. Dano says:

    he relevance of this issue is that it proves that the Hockey Stick is WRONG because it has no statistical significance


    A decade-old first paper isn’t perfect!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Stop the presses!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Golly, good thing a dozen other studies have found the same thing as the MBH98 paper, so we can move on now.

    Oh, wait: the rest of the planet has already have moved on.

    I guess you two and the other bots at CA are stuck in the ignorant past. Your mommy is calling. Dinner’s ready.



  17. David B. Benson says:

    Hey — Your assertion regarding the IPCC AR4 paleoclimate chaptr is simply, patently false.

  18. Peter Wood says:

    I think this post illustrates why environmental groups shouldn’t use the term “clean coal”.