“The jury will disregard the witness’s last statement,” says the judge when inadmissible testimony is offered. Of course, the listener can’t erase from memory what was just heard, but the judge’s admonition represents at least a semblance of fairness.
So what happens when truly false information is offered in a public forum and perhaps is even repeated over and over again? A research study from Australia attempts to answer this question and the results seem especially pertinent in an age when misinformation swirls constantly through our many channels of communication.
The results are as disheartening as they are predictable.
Once disinformation is in the public realm it is extremely difficult to undo the damage it may have caused. In fact, the erroneous information can persist even in the very people who realize in their rational thinking that the information is wrong. A very strong campaign to correct the originally false impression may have some success, but the results of this study illustrate why public figures are so susceptible to putting out “facts” they know to be untrue.
The implications for science? Whether misinformation is intended to be misleading or is simply accidental, the very validity of science is undermined when large numbers of people question whether evolution has occurred, believe global warming is a hoax, or think vaccination is a sinister plot. Each of these has been repeated numerous times (“strong encoding” in the psychological study) and is so deeply embedded in the consciousness of large numbers of people that the errors may be nearly impossible to reverse.
Nearly impossible is not the same as totally unattainable, luckily, so those who seek to counter bad information with good need to do double duty.
Tom Tritton is President and CEO of CHF.
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