There was a fascinating study conducted that examined how much we cling to lies in the face of truth. The focus was on myths about vaccines. The study found that when told the truth about side effects, we stick to misconceptions.
Researchers tested whether people “could be persuaded to change their incorrect beliefs that certain vaccines cause autism or have lesser but still harmful side effects on children.”
Researchers surveyed 120 university students from Scotland and Italy about their beliefs on vaccine side effects. Then they exposed the students to one of three sets of information regarding vaccines:
- a worksheet that discussed myths versus facts;
- a chart comparing the actual effects of diseases with the actual side effects of vaccines and their prevalence;
- photos of unvaccinated children with the diseases.
(A fourth set of students, a control group, received medical fact sheets unrelated to vaccines.)
Amazingly, the test subjects stuck to their opinions even after being shown facts about the matter. “In fact,” according to the article, “their beliefs were stronger afterward.” And the group that was most insistent on clinging to the myths were those who had been presented with the myths versus facts worksheet.
I know. You’re thinking, “What?”
Here’s why: “When people see misinformation contrasted with truth—a commonly used tactic in public health campaigns—they may stick with the incorrect information they heard earlier simply because they are familiar with it.”
According to Sergio Della Sala, a neuroscience professor at the University of Edinburgh and one of three researchers who conducted the study, “If we want to counter misconceptions by offerings stating ‘this is true, this is false,’ it’s not going to do any good.” Many people can’t recall the source or validity of information but still remember parts of what they have “heard.” Or as Della Sala says, “It lingers in your system and becomes true.”
Previous research confirms that simply hearing a concept over and over again can make people interpret the familiarity as truth.
So what’s the best way to combat untruths?
Della Sala says it’s crucial to provide a set of facts that can combat the previous statements without restating the myths, or even mentioning them. “Saying ‘this is wrong’ or ‘this is false’ is not enough.”
I don’t believe this is being grappled with—at least sufficiently—in regard to Christian apologetics. (Apologetics is a word used for all efforts to defend the gospel against attack, and to put forward arguments for its truth.)
Think about the myths people believe about the Christian faith, such as how science contradicts the Bible, or that the Bible is full of errors, or that Jesus was married and had children. The list is endless.
Most rebuttals bring the myth up and then counter it with the facts. I’ve done it a thousand times. But perhaps it’s better to finesse that approach a bit and simply put forward the facts. If there’s an elephant in the room, of course you should address it. We don’t need to fall into a Voldemortian “that-which-shall-not-be-named” approach.
But when it comes to apologetics, we don’t always need to drag up every myth and reinforce its existence in the minds of people. Sometimes it might be better to simply put forward the truth…
… and let the myth expire from our collective consciousness.
James Emery White
Sara Pluviano, “Misinformation Lingers in Memory: Failure of Three Pro-Vaccination Strategies,” Plos, July 27, 2017, read online.
Alina Dizik, “Myths About Vaccines Are Hard to Dispel,” The Wall Street Journal, September 12, 2017, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.