Obama’s Other Climate Messaging Mistake: Trying to Debunk A Myth By Repeating It

I will focus on a “speaking secret” in my Sunday updates on “Language Intelligence” — which has been the #1 Kindle book on “public speaking” since it came out in mid-August. Award-winning writer Sean Otto said in his review, “If you want to win the argument, in politics, in business, in life, Language Intelligence is an essential, entertaining and inspiring weapon in your arsenal of letters.” This post reviews why you shouldn’t repeat a myth you are trying to debunk.

President Obama’s failure to speak out repeatedly on the urgency of climate action is his biggest communications mistake. If our leaders don’t talk about an issue, it generally won’t become sufficiently salient for either the media or the public.

But Obama’s statement at the Democratic convention — responding to Romney’s mockery of his 2008 pledge of climate action — also contained a classic messaging mistake:

And yes, my plan will continue to reduce the carbon pollution that is heating our planet – because climate change is not a hoax.  More droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke.  They’re a threat to our children’s future.  And in this election, you can do something about it.

The social science literature is quite clear that repeating a myth is not the best way to debunk it. Indeed, there is evidence that it can actually end up promoting that myth.

It’s why linguist George Lakoff titled his best-selling book, Don’t think of an elephant. If I say that to you, you will think of an elephant. Negatives carry very little rhetorical weight. In this case, the word “hoax” is very strong and memorable and is not one that should be repeated by those who understand the realities of climate science.

As I discuss in my book, “Language Intelligence: Lessons on Persuasion from Jesus, Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Lady Gaga,” this notion is so core to rhetoric that the ancient Greeks even had a figure of speech named for it — apophasis. Apophais, from the Greek word for “to deny,” is the figure of speech that emphasizes a point by pretending to deny it, that stresses an idea or image by negating it. As Shakespeare has Marc Antony say to the Roman citizens in the “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” speech after Caesar’s assassination, “Sweet friends, let me not stir you up to such a sudden flood of mutiny.” He wants — and gets — a mutiny.

This is not just a long-standing principle of rhetoric, but something demonstrated by modern social science research. 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.

When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put out a flier to debunk myths about the flu vaccine, it repeated several myths, such as, “The side effects are worse than the flu” and labeled them false. A study of people given the flier found that “within 30 minutes, older people misremembered 28 percent of the false statements as true.” Worse, “three days later, they remembered 40 percent of the myths as factual.” And they identified the source of their erroneous beliefs as the CDC itself!

A Washington Post article, “Persistence of Myths Could Alter Public Policy Approach,” explained, “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.

If you want to debunk a myth, you should focus on stating the truth, not repeating the myth.

More speaking secrets can be found in “Language Intelligence.” You can buy the Kindle here and the recently discounted paperback here.


22 Responses to Obama’s Other Climate Messaging Mistake: Trying to Debunk A Myth By Repeating It

  1. Organelle says:

    First I have to say I read your blog every day and highly respect it. I have to moderately disagree with this though, for two reasons. First categorically stating something is not true is slightly different from repeating the lie. Second, many times I have wished your blog would spend less time repeating what the deniers claim. As a reference, see the headline today that states ‘the coal industry has advertised ‘clean coal’ since at least 1921′
    I think caution requires pronouncing these false claims as lies should be the way to talk about them. And not quoting what they say.

  2. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    It is little surprising people discount denials. We see so many false ones.

    As you point out repeatedly, people remember much better what is.

    Global warming is real. We are the cause. It will be bad. But we can make it worse, much worse.

    We must start listening to what you say. With so much bull sh** stating the myth, then debunking it, is an easy trap to fall into. State what is.

    Who can forget Nixon’s “I am a crook”. That’s not what he said?

  3. Bill Walker says:

    Clearly, the GOP knows the power of repetition of a lie.

  4. Joe Romm says:

    First, you miss the point. People who are only loosely paying attention to what the president said will, weeks later, remember he said something about “climate change” and “hoax” and some fraction are going to think he called it a hoax.

    Second, I am myself often torn on this issue about not repeating myths. But the key point is that this blog is not aimed at a general audience. Well under 99% of Americans have probably ever seen even a headline from this blog.

    So while one should not repeat myths when communicating to a general audience, I don’t think the same thing applies when you in more narrow settings.

  5. forEarth says:

    I seem to remember Lakoff or colleague writing – some time ago – that we should be referring to it not as global warming or the climate change but ‘the CLIMATE CRISIS’.

  6. The Wonderer says:

    I understand your point, I’m just not sure it applies here, but I’m not sure why. I got up and danced around the room when he said that. I think it’s great every time I read it. Effective scolding.

  7. DRT says:

    I would have preferred

    …because climate change is real my friend.

  8. Omega Centauri says:

    Joe, just finished reading the book. Its going to be tough going for the legions like myself, who trained themselves from an early age in clear scientific thinking. So, I, and people like myself at an early age rejected rhetoric as imprecise, and dangerous, because of its ability to confuse/mislead. So now we are brought, kicking and screaming (overused figure of speech -but accurate here) to the realization that we gotta fight fire with fire -water alone won’t do the job.

    Obviously getting good at rhetoric, is going to require a long sustained effort on my/our part. Simply because I read your book, I am not magically transformed into a persuasive speaker -that will take much effort.

    I had thought the greater issue should have been, epistemology, teaching people clear and critical thinking skills. I still think that is important, but clearly it won’t work by itself.

  9. John Mason says:

    How would I have gone about this were I Obama?

    “And yes, my plan will continue to reduce the carbon pollution that is heating our planet. That’s a big difference between us. The other guy managed to gloss climate change over in less than twenty words. He must have had his back to the Arctic where every sea-ice meltdown record has been smashed weeks ahead of the normal end of the melting season. He must have had his back to the American Midwest and the terrible droughts and wildfires that are ravaging the area. He saw fit to make a joke about it. More droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke. They’re a threat to our children’s future. And in this election, you can do something about it.”

    Well, something along those lines!

  10. Ozonator says:

    Repeating lies = plagiarism, selling mitt without mittens = AGW

    “A Loveable Little Fuzz Ball … September 27, 2004 … plagiarism out there, it’s hard to remember any right-winger plagiarist. … I just don’t remember any” (the old, ugly and evil Rush “looting” Limbaugh whistlesucker performing and perfuming the stink at

  11. prokaryotes says:

    I found this very interesting but i wonder are there exceptions to this rule of thumb? Because the word “hoax” in itself is like the opposite to “science” (truth vs lies).

    Also i missing a constructive part in this post, about how Obama better had framed his words.

    So instead to rephrase the psychological phallacy:
    “…because climate change is not a hoax.”

    i suggest to just say:

    “…because climate change is true.” ( true = yes it is indeed science)

  12. prokaryotes says:

    I meant to write fallacy.

  13. Joe Romm says:

    It has taken me the second half of my life to unlearn what I learned in the first half.

  14. Martin Lack says:

    I agree that it is generally not a good idea to denounce hoaxes; as one runs the risk of seeming scared of the hoaxers. This is especially true of politicians; of whom people are generally very suspicious. However, I hope that, in this particular instance, people will understand that Obama was not stating an opinion; he was stating a fact.

  15. Joe Romm says:

    It’s really just about “hoax” being a memorable word.

  16. Jamie Ross says:

    This line was not intended to establish a narrative on climate change. Instead, it’s purpose was to bolster Obama’s support among the climate-conscious who have grown disillusioned.

  17. Mark Shapiro says:

    Joe –

    Your point about apophasis is important, and bears repeating.

    It is also quite difficult to use consistently and correctly, especially when in some contexts (like this blog!) you have to break the rule.

    Interestingly, the problem is enshrined in our laws: a jury can at best rule “not guilty”. It can never simply say “innocent”.

  18. Brian R Smith says:

    If that was the intent I suppose a few of the disillusioned felt it was a tasty bone in lieu of an actual, chewable narrative. Hearing that climate change is not a hoax did not do it for me, one of the seriously impatient, disillusioned climate-conscious. We can hope that the President and his team are among the 1% who read & benefit from Joe’s insight and will make their intent a whole lot less ambiguous and a whole lot more proactive. Do not hold your breath.

  19. Brian R Smith says:

    If Joe’s example of the CDC’s study results

    (“three days later, [older people]
    remembered 40 percent of the myths as
    factual.” And they identified the source
    of their erroneous beliefs as the CDC

    is applied to Obama’s “hoax” apophais, we might conclude that a high % of people who heard it now remember that climate change is a hoax and that the president told them so.

    If so, where does that leave the argument that Presidential messaging on climate is of first importance? Perhaps it will be later. Right now there are better voices to be heard, if we can make them be heard.

  20. Omega Centauri says:

    Agreed. Sat Its NOT a hoax, may be good for his short term goal -shoring up his support with a few wavering voters, but if we are going to win the long term war, we gotta get our messages right -even at the cost of short term progress. Else we could end up with an outcome similar to the Vietnam war (the US won ALL the battles, but that was irrelevant to the outcome.)

  21. Organelle says:

    I see what you’re getting at now.

    As an aside, I think you undersell yourself as to the 99% of people never seeing these posts. They are linked all over Facebook non-scientist types pages, mine included. I also print them to send on to non-Internet folks.
    You are quoted in other news and blogs. I guess my earlier point was I don’t tend to forward posts that have too many quotes by deniers. I don’t want that misinformation to be remembered.
    You have the best climate and politics information source out there.

  22. John Mason says:

    Mind you, compared to what Romney came out with at that fund-raiser, it’s a minor niggle! The Romney story is big news here in the UK and in Germany….