Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Van Gogh was afraid of the moon and other lies

I remember the first time I realized just how easily false information gets spread about.

A terrifying starry night
I was in French class in high school. Our homework had been to find out 1 interesting fact about Van Gogh and tell it to the class. When it was my turn, I said some boring small fact that I no longer remember. My friend sitting behind me, however, had a fascinating fact: When Van Gogh was a young child, he was actually afraid of the moon.

The teacher and the class were all quite impressed and thought about how interesting that was and how that fact might be reflected in the way that he paints the Starry Night. Though this fact was new to everyone, including the teacher, no one even thought to question its truth.

In fact, the teacher was so enthralled by this idea that she passed the information on to all the other French classes that day.

When talking to my friend later that day, he admitted that he had not done the assignment, and just made the 'fact' up. I was completely surprised, not only that someone had not done their homework *gasp*, but that I hadn't even thought to question whether this was true or not. 
The best lies have an element of truth (source)
 Misinformation like this spreads like wildfire and is exceptionally difficult to undo. The more things you can link this piece of information to in your brain, the more true you might think it and even after your learn that it's not true, you still might inadvertently believe it or fit new ideas into the context it creates. Myths like the corpus callosum is bigger in women than in men is just one of those things that is easy to believe.

An interesting paper by Lewandowsky et al. (2012) explains how this kind of persistent misinformation is detrimental to individuals and to society with the example of vaccines causing autism. This particular piece of misinformation is widely believed to be true despite numerous attempts to publicize the correct information and the most recent scientific findings showing no evidence for a link between the two

The authors of this paper give some recommendations for making the truth more vivid and effectively replacing the misinformation with new, true information. For example:
"Providing an alternative causal explanation of the event can fill the gap left behind by retracting misinformation. Studies have shown that the continued influence of misinformation can be eliminated through the provision of an alternative account that explains why the information was incorrect." Lewandowsky et al. (2012)
Misinformation can be replaced with information, but it takes more work to replace a 'false fact' than to just have the truth out there in the first place. It is much better when misinformation is not spread around in the first place, than when it is retroactively corrected.

This paper is also covered over at The Jury Room.

© TheCellularScale
Lewandowsky, S., Ecker, U., Seifert, C., Schwarz, N., & Cook, J. (2012). Misinformation and Its Correction: Continued Influence and Successful Debiasing Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 13 (3), 106-131 DOI: 10.1177/1529100612451018

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