Correcting misinformation may not be as complicated as it sounds

Reference: Swire-Thompson, B., Cook, J., Butler, L. H., Sanderson, J. A., Lewandowsky, S., & Ecker, U. K. H. (2021). Correction format has a limited role when debunking misinformation. Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications 6, 83. 

If you had to write an essay or news article to debunk a myth, like the “Earth is flat” or that “Lightning never strikes the same place twice,” how would you go about doing so? What would be the best way to structure your argument? Would you lead with the facts or the myth you’re attempting to debunk? Should you even reference the myths you’re arguing against?

Although we know the earth is round and travels throughout the solar system, this map of the “Square and Stationary Earth” may seem convincing at first glance. 
Credit: Orlando Ferguson (1893), Map of the Square and Stationary Earth.

These are questions that have animated researchers in the social sciences for many years. Since at least the 1980s, researchers in psychology have been wondering how to undo misconceptions about science and (more recently) political misinformation (1, 2)

In a recent article published in the journal Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications, Briony Swire-Thompson and colleagues used a series of four experiments to test which text formats best helped readers change their mind concerning a wide range of myths to ensure that their findings would be generalizable to many kinds of commonly-held misconceptions. Specifically, in addition to a control condition in which no corrections were made, they tested four conditions: myth first, fact first, myth only, and fact only by including or not including statements such as the following:

MYTH: There is no scientific consensus that humans are causing global warming.

FACT: Some groups try to cast doubt on human-caused global warming. They do this by manufacturing the appearance of an ongoing scientific debate. The “fake debate” strategy was pioneered by the tobacco industry in the 1970s…

Excerpt from Swire-Thompson et al.’s stimuli

In contrast to the myth-first format above, a fact-first format would include the same information with the “FACT” section(s) first. In Swire-Thompson et al.’s Experiment 2, the researchers tested the effects of different types of video lectures in a massive open online course (MOOC) on the topic of “Making sense of climate science denial.” These video lectures were all designed to debunk the same common climate change myths, but varied in how they presented the information. Half of the video lectures presented the myth first, while the other half presented the fact first. As opposed to their first experiment, which was conducted in somewhat artificial laboratory conditions, this MOOC experiment allowed the authors to examine the effects of debunking climate change myths on students who were interested in updating their understanding of climate change. 

Fortunately, throughout their series of experiments Swire-Thompson et al. found that correction format did not make a significant difference in the correction of misconceptions. In the MOOC experiment, the researchers did not find that the myth-first or fact-first conditions differed from one-another. Throughout their other experiments, all of the experimental conditions led to a significant reduction in the amount of misconceptions espoused by participants compared to the control conditions in which no correction was given. Except for one instance where a myth-first showed a small benefit, generally no significant differences were found among the conditions that offered corrections. 

Thus, it is critical to correct misconceptions, but the exact sequence of information being presented (i.e., myth-first or fact-first) seems to have little impact on people’s likelihood of changing their mind on a topic. 

However, there is one note of caution. Swire-Thompson et al. warn against repeating a myth without highlighting that it is indeed a myth or pairing it with the appropriate fact check. For example, a headline on the front page of a news site that simply says: “The earth is flat?” would be a bad headline. This repeats a myth, but does not immediately correct it. If a visitor to the website sees the headline, but does not click through to the full article, this headline may inadvertently lead them to believe that this myth is true. This goes hand-in-hand with other research showing that merely repeating a falsehood is a powerful way of making a statement seem more truthful (this is known as the illusory truth effect; 3). 

Although Swire-Thompson et al.’s conclusion is relatively optimistic, there are undoubtedly additional factors outside of the order of presentation of myths and facts that matter when debunking myths that could not be captured by this single study. If you are interested in the devilish details of misinformation debunking, see previous cogbites posts by Cheryl Cohen.

Additional References:

(1) Guzzetti, B. J., Snyder, T. E., & Glass, G. V. (1992). Promoting conceptual change in science: Can texts be used effectively?. Journal of Reading, 35(8), 642-649.

(2) Zengilowski, A., Schuetze, B. A., Nash, B. L., & Schallert, D. L. (2021). A critical review of the refutation text literature: Methodological confounds, theoretical problems, and possible solutions. Educational Psychologist, 56(3), 175-195.

(3) De Keersmaecker, J., Dunning, D., Pennycook, G., Rand, D. G., Sanchez, C., Unkelbach, C., & Roets, A. (2020). Investigating the robustness of the illusory truth effect across individual differences in cognitive ability, need for cognitive closure, and cognitive style. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 46(2), 204-215.