“The most dangerous untruths are truths moderately distorted” ~ Georg Christoph Lichtenberg
From when we are very young, we are told not to lie. That we should beware the consequences, for ourselves and others. If we realise we have mistaken or misrepresented the facts, we take steps to remedy it – the media publish retractions, judges tell jurors to set aside evidence proven false.
Scientists in UWA’s School of Psychology have discovered, however, that all the remedies in the world cannot erase that misleading information from our minds. That we continue to be affected by retracted information that we once believed to be true. They found that a specific warning – giving detailed information about this effect – succeeded in reducing the continued reliance on outdated information but did not eliminate it completely. A more general warning – reminding people that facts are not always properly checked before information is disseminated – was even less effective.
It is interesting how often we go back to premises we know are no longer accurate. We know that “I before E, except after C” – except thatit has more exceptions than cases that obey. Despite this, I still misspell words like “oneiromancies” because I remember the old rule.
Another example is atoms. Most people, even if they know better will draw Figure A, as opposed to Figure B, even though the latter is more technically correct. This is because, in schools, we get taught the incorrect one first (as was pointed out in this post).
“To know the history of science is to recognise the mortality of any claim to universal truth” – Evelyn Fox Keller, Reflections on Gender and Science, 1995
What does this mean for science communicators? To me, it means we have to be really careful that what we write isn’t misinterpretted or factually incorrect. It also means we have to be aware that we are in a constantly changing industry, full of updates and contradictory information.
What do you think? Does the onus lie with the communicators? Or with the public?