Dignified With a Response

Denials of misinformation from trusted experts are partially counterproductive; three days after reading a pamphlet correcting health myths, 40% of people had within 3 days dropped the negation from the original “X is not true” in their memory, believing instead “X” and attributing the knowledge to the experts who’d said the opposite.  This is probably a worse state of affairs than before (unless the particular belief was both extremely harmful and widespread before exposure to the propaganda).  In any case, it seems like we should do better than to accidentally and absolutely convince 40% of people of a harmful untruth.

If I wanted people to remember that X was wrong, I’d have an unattractive person directly advocate X, and viciously destroy him and his argument, preferably in public.  People seem to remember who’s embarrassed and who hates who.  I’ve seen this technique used in propaganda cartoons, and on Fox News with patsy liberal guests.

From The Denier’s Dilemma:
Ruth Mayo … found that for a substantial chunk of people, the “negation tag” of a denial falls off with time. … explaining why people who are accused of something but are later proved innocent find their reputations remain tarnished. … So is silence the best way to deal with myths? Unfortunately, the answer to that question also seems to be no.  Another recent study found that when accusations or assertions are met with silence, they are more likely to feel true

In that vein, Robin Hanson asks what conclusions we should draw when a heavily promoted fringe belief (not accepted by official authorities) isn’t met with any substantial rebuttal.  Not only should we not believe fringe advocates just because they’re loud, fervent, and apparently unopposed, we should take the official silence as an implied rebuke. 

I often wonder: when is it worth my effort to undertake my own investigation of the merits of the fringe argument, in depth sufficient that I could find the confidence to overcome the strong prior against them by nature of their fringe status?  In most cases, either the fringe claim is so incredible, or the advocates so flawed, that there’s no temptation.  In some cases, the payoff for correctly adopting a fringe belief seems low (if it’s true that excessive milk drinking is harming me, it probably isn’t by very much), even if the cost of gaining the information needed to decide it is modest.

Prof. Hanson also suggests that when there is serious opposition to an idea, the fact that the opponents are diverse in their reasons and premises, is not evidence against them.  For example, people sometimes advocate racial (among other types of) profiling for the reason that it’s rational to avoid considering certain groups when you want to find a qualified person of any group as easily as possible, but Robin and others want to argue that it’s unfair and breeds crime, for not enough benefit.  The argument for profiling is simpler and clearer, but since most of us don’t want to allow profiling, we should be consistent and not generally take “confusion in the opposition” as evidence.