The Myth About Myth Busting

Alan Jenkins

So I’m trying to convince my wife that we should raise chickens in our back yard—it’s a suburban Green Acres thing, you might not understand. She has been, shall we say, cool to the idea, despite my promises of fresh eggs, cute chicks, and benefits to the environment.

Fortunately, I found and ordered online a copy of Backyard Poultry magazine. Seriously. And the cover story? “Seven Myths Surrounding Urban Chickens.” Technically, of course, my chickens would be sub-urban. But it still seemed like a stroke of luck.

Now, as a communications professional, I know there’s literally a ton of social science research showing that myth busting—identifying and factually debunking commonly held myths and misinformation—is worse than ineffective; it actually deepens audiences’ belief in the lie. It reinforces your opponent’s frame. And it exposes the myth to new audiences who may not have heard it before.

But surely those lessons wouldn’t apply to communications with my spouse, a well-educated and thoughtful person who (presumably) trusts my veracity, if not my judgment or animal husbandry skills. So I began reading the list of myths in preparation for our conversation:

  • Myth #1: Chickens carry diseases communicable to humans.
  • Myth #2: Chickens are too noisy.
  • Myth #3: Chickens cause waste and odor.
  • Myth #4: Chickens attract predators, pests and rodents.
  • Myth #5: Property values will decrease.
  • Myth #6: Coops are ugly.
  • Myth #7: What will the neighbors think?

The article painstakingly debunked each myth, explaining, for example, that a forty-pound dog creates more solid waste than 10 chickens.

By the time I finished reading, I had learned at least one thing: I will not be getting any chickens. Communicable diseases? I hadn’t even thought about that. A forty-pound dog? That’s a lot of chicken poop. Not only would the article not convince my wife, it had turned even me off to the idea—despite the cogent arguments that these are myths, not facts.

So, once again, myth busting not only doesn’t work, it undermines our arguments. Yet progressives continue to do it. A search of OurFuture.org yields dozens of mythbusting articles, on topics from job creation to Social Security to immigration to the role of government. (And, okay, I have one in there on the mortgage meltdown). Same with progressive blogs ThinkProgress and HuffingtonPost.

So if myth busting doesn’t work, what does? Telling our affirmative story, framed on our terms, in ways that overwhelm the myths without repeating them or sharing them with new audiences. We can document the many contributions of immigrants, including the payroll, Social Security, and other taxes they pay, without repeating the myth that, well, you know. We can tell the story of government’s crucial role in our lives without reinforcing the conservative “big government” frame. And we can articulate a future for Social Security consistent with its actual resources and timeline.

And, of course, we can explain that chickens are quiet, sweet-smelling creatures that improve property values, live in beautiful coops, and carry only diseases that human can’t catch.

We need not, should not, stay silent in the face of lies, myths, or misinformation. But we should tell our story, not that of our opponents. Anything less would be…chicken.

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