It’s difficult to challenge a myth or lie without repeating it, yet repeating it will also reinforce it. (More)

The Little Blue Book, Pt. II: Don’t Remember That Lie

This week Morning Feature considers George Lakoff and Elisabeth Wehling’s The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democratic . Yesterday we looked at their core premise, that human reasoning is grounded in moral rather than factual analysis. Today we explore how to challenge political myths and lies without reinforcing those same myths and lies. Tomorrow we’ll conclude with a Democratic phrase list that evokes progressive moral reasoning.

George Lakoff is a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of several books, including Don’t Think of an Elephant and Moral Politics. Elisabeth Wehling is a Ph.D candidate at the University of California, Berkeley and earned her master’s degree in communication psychology at Hamburg University. In addition to her research, she writes and consults on German and European politics.

“There is no B-3 bomber.”

Barry Levinson’s 1997 film Wag the Dog was cynical fiction and not a documentary, but this snippet of dialogue illustrated a key insight on how humans think:

CAIN: But there isn’t a B-3 bomber.
BREAN: Where’d you go to school, Kid. Wellesley?
CAIN: Dartmouth
BREAN: Then show a little spunk. There is no B-3 bomber. General Scott, to the best of your knowledge, is not in Seattle to talk with Boeing….

A story denying that General Scott is in Seattle to talk with Boeing about a bomber that does not exist has the same effect as “Don’t think of an elephant.” The reason has to do with how our brains work: you cannot negate an idea or image without thinking of that idea or image, and a vivid story or tangible object is more salient than an abstract idea such as negation. Worse, repetition makes us more comfortable with an idea or image and we conflate comfort with reliability, a concept known as the illusion-of-truth effect.

Simply, the more often we hear that General Scott was not in Seattle to talk with Boeing about a bomber that does not exist, the more likely we are to believe he was in Seattle and did talk with Boeing about that bomber … which thus must exist. Oops.

Bad Fact-Checking Can Be Worse than None

That creates real problems when it comes to challenging myths and lies. Consider this common fact-checking pattern:

Claim: Responding to pressure from religious groups, Alabama’s state legislature redefined the value of pi from 3.14159 to 3 in order to bring it in line with Biblical precepts.

Status: False

Example: [Quotes in full a common version of the story.]

Origins: [Documents that the story began as an April Fool’s parody.]

That pattern is logical, and if our brains functioned solely on logic that would be fine. Yet this fact-checking pattern – repeating the myth, all too often in bold type and/or in detail, before explaining how it is untrue – is more likely to reinforce than to dispel a myth. It works for “the choir,” confirming the suspicions of those already predisposed to disbelieve a story. But those who want to believe a story often dig in when faced with contrary facts, and those who aren’t already invested in a story will be subject to the illusion-of-truth effect.

Focus Fact-Checking on the Facts

For a better example, consider this editorial in yesterday’s New York Times:

Mitt Romney’s campaign has hit new depths of truth-twisting with its accusation that President Obama plans to “gut welfare reform” by ending federal work requirements. The claim is blatantly false, but it says a great deal about Mr. Romney’s increasingly desperate desire to define the president as something he is not.

For years, both Republican and Democratic governors have sought waivers from the 1996 work requirements in the welfare program, sometimes to tailor programs to their states’ needs, or to experiment with demonstration programs….

The editorial then presents examples of such requests from Republican governors in Nevada and Utah and summarizes the Department of Health and Human Services’ response issued last month, before continuing:

This was hardly an earthshaking change. In fact, it was exactly the kind of flexibility sought in 2005 by 29 Republican governors, including Mitt Romney of Massachusetts. But conservative ideologues immediately waved the memo around to prove that Mr. Obama wanted to return to the bad old days of welfare, and inevitably Mr. Romney’s campaign followed suit.

Only after detailing the facts does the Times repeat the details of Romney’s lie. By the time a reader reaches that paragraph, near the end of the editorial, the reader had already been primed to reject Romney’s claim. Indeed the Times‘ began that priming in their headline: “Mr. Rommey Hits Bottom on Welfare.”

Note the word “bottom” in that headline and its echo “depths” in the lead sentence. As we saw yesterday, vertical words imply moral judgments: Top-Up-Higher Equals Good and Bottom-Down-Lower Equals Bad. By using the words “bottom” and “depths,” the writers both correct a false statement and cast shame on an immoral act.

Progressives must demand and practice fact-checking of myths, but we must also demand and practice effective fact-checking that focuses on the facts and not the lies. Tomorrow we’ll explore Lakoff and Wehling’s progressive phrasebook and how the language we use can help us reinforce progressive moral values.

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Happy Friday!