Fact Checking Spreads Myths?
Paul clued me in on an article where factcheck.org defends itself from the Washington Post's claim that debunking political myths actually helps spread them. The theory is that, for instance, when the Bush regime was working hard to mention Iraq and 9/11 together as often as possible to create a false impression that those two were connected, those like factcheck.org who were pointing out there was no connection between the two ended up mentioning Iraq and 9/11 together just like the regime, reinforcing the idea that Iraq and 9/11 actually were connected.
You see, according to cognitive neuroscience, people often remember things they have heard mentioned together, but forget whether they are positively or negatively correlated. That is to say, in the sentence, "Iraq was in no way responsible for 9/11," many people remember that Iraq and 9/11 were mentioned together but forget that the sentence said Iraq and 9/11 weren't actually connected. Or, rather, they remember, "Iraq was in no way responsible for 9/11."
But I agree with factcheck.org that the danger of further creating an impression that Iraq was involved in 9/11 when debunking the myth that Iraq was involved in 9/11 is not as great as the danger in not making sure that the truth gets out there. For one thing, while most people hear at least some news and are likely to hear the Bush regime mentioning Iraq and 9/11 together all the time, few probably of those people read and have a chance to have their impressions reinforced by factcheck.org. But, on the other hand, some people, like me, who go to the lengths to try not to be influenced by rhetorical tricks like these, and who want and need to know the truth, need a place to go to find it.
That is to say, if in order to keep the general public from further believing in a falsehood we make it impossible for those of us interested in learning the actual truth from learning that truth, we're making a huge mistake, in my opinion. We can't necessarily stop a myth from being started, spread, and reinforced through repetition, but we can put out the truth so that those who want to know it can. There's little evidence that fewer people will fall for repetition if no one like factcheck.org is out there clearing up falsehoods, but I know for sure some people will be unable to learn the truth if they aren't.