Supermyths: Myths About Debunking Myths

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Supermyths: Myths About Debunking Myths

Postby sardia » Thu Apr 28, 2016 1:17 pm UTC

http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/who ... debunkers/

Popeye loved his leafy greens and used them to obtain his super strength, Arbesman’s book explained, because the cartoon’s creators knew that spinach has a lot of iron. Indeed, the character would be a major evangelist for spinach in the 1930s, and it’s said he helped increase the green’s consumption in the U.S. by one-third. But this “fact” about the iron content of spinach was already on the verge of being obsolete, Arbesman said: In 1937, scientists realized that the original measurement of the iron in 100 grams of spinach — 35 milligrams — was off by a factor of 10. That’s because a German chemist named Erich von Wolff had misplaced a decimal point in his notebook back in 1870, and the goof persisted in the literature for more than half a century.

By the time nutritionists caught up with this mistake, the damage had been done. The spinach-iron myth stuck around in spite of new and better knowledge, wrote Arbesman, because “it’s a lot easier to spread the first thing you find, or the fact that sounds correct, than to delve deeply into the literature in search of the correct fact.”

Arbesman was not the first to tell the cautionary tale of the missing decimal point. The same parable of sloppy science, and its dire implications, appeared in a book called “Follies and Fallacies in Medicine,” a classic work of evidence-based skepticism first published in 1989.1 It also appeared in a volume of “Magnificent Mistakes in Mathematics,” a guide to “The Practice of Statistics in the Life Sciences” and an article in an academic journal called “The Consequence of Errors.” And that’s just to name a few.

All these tellings and retellings miss one important fact: The story of the spinach myth is itself apocryphal. It’s true that spinach isn’t really all that useful as a source of iron, and it’s true that people used to think it was. But all the rest is false: No one moved a decimal point in 1870; no mistake in data entry spurred Popeye to devote himself to spinach; no misguided rules of eating were implanted by the sailor strip. The story of the decimal point manages to recapitulate the very error that it means to highlight: a fake fact, but repeated so often (and with such sanctimony) that it takes on the sheen of truth.

In that sense, the story of the lost decimal point represents a special type of viral anecdote or urban legend, one that finds its willing hosts among the doubters, not the credulous. It’s a rumor passed around by skeptics — a myth about myth-busting. Like other Russian dolls of distorted facts, it shows us that, sometimes, the harder that we try to be clear-headed, the deeper we are drawn into the fog.

Tldr: trying to debunk Myths weakens your skepticism and makes it likely to perpetuate new errors.

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Re: Supermyths: Myths About Debunking Myths

Postby Whizbang » Thu Apr 28, 2016 1:47 pm UTC

sardia wrote:Tldr: trying to debunk Myths weakens your skepticism and makes it likely to perpetuate new errors.


I don't think "weakens" is the right word. In fact, I'd say this whole statement is off. The tldr I took away was that even skeptical thinking people can fall prey to errors and unknowingly propagate misinformation. That even skeptical people aren't skeptical enough. To say it weakens your skepticism is a step too far, IMO.

It is unclear if the second half of your statement has an implied "more" in front of "likely". If so, then a comparison between the number of errors perpetuated by skeptics and non-skeptics is needed. A difficult study, to be sure.

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Re: Supermyths: Myths About Debunking Myths

Postby sardia » Thu Apr 28, 2016 3:09 pm UTC

Whizbang wrote:
sardia wrote:Tldr: trying to debunk Myths weakens your skepticism and makes it likely to perpetuate new errors.


I don't think "weakens" is the right word. In fact, I'd say this whole statement is off. The tldr I took away was that even skeptical thinking people can fall prey to errors and unknowingly propagate misinformation. That even skeptical people aren't skeptical enough. To say it weakens your skepticism is a step too far, IMO.

It is unclear if the second half of your statement has an implied "more" in front of "likely". If so, then a comparison between the number of errors perpetuated by skeptics and non-skeptics is needed. A difficult study, to be sure.

It seems that the tellers of these tales are getting blinkered by their own feelings of superiority — that the mere act of busting myths makes them more susceptible to spreading them.

Are you sure about the act of debunking a myth does NOT weaken your skepticism?

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Re: Supermyths: Myths About Debunking Myths

Postby leady » Thu Apr 28, 2016 3:30 pm UTC

The point has at least some basis in reality, there are lots of topics in which "debunking" is little more than signalling from intelligence through to political leanings

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Re: Supermyths: Myths About Debunking Myths

Postby Soupspoon » Thu Apr 28, 2016 3:31 pm UTC

How about the differences between someone believing a now discredited fact and someone believing a now discredited discreditation of that fact in actually moving on from their error to the (now accepted) truth of the situation..?

Myself, I always 'knew' that the cartoon exploits depicted spinach as a superfood, long before the current term of that name, because the US Government were trying to prop up the spinach-growing farmers by arranging/exploiting the mythical status in children's eyes. Like carrots for eyesight (to part-obfuscate the existence of night-fighters with early radar capabilities) over here.

But, I already know there's a bit of untruth to both of these (or at least their own share of fudge and chinese-whispers), and if someone could sound definitive and evidence-based enough, I might be convinced to learn the new(er) explanation as fact. Until proven mistaken, again.

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Re: Supermyths: Myths About Debunking Myths

Postby Whizbang » Thu Apr 28, 2016 3:34 pm UTC

sardia wrote:Are you sure about the act of debunking a myth does NOT weaken your skepticism?


No. Of course not. If I was sure I wouldn't be skeptical. ;)

It seems that the tellers of these tales are getting blinkered by their own feelings of superiority — that the mere act of busting myths makes them more susceptible to spreading them.


However, the second word in your quoted statement, bolded above, indicates that the author is not sure either.

Do skeptical people cause and propagate errors? Yes.
Should the fact that they cause and propagate errors mean you should throw the baby out with the bathwater and just go full anti-skepticism? No.

[ETA]
Besides, the word "Weaken" implies a comparison. Weakened compared to what? Not being skeptical? How does that make sense?
Last edited by Whizbang on Thu Apr 28, 2016 3:35 pm UTC, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Supermyths: Myths About Debunking Myths

Postby Lazar » Thu Apr 28, 2016 3:34 pm UTC

The Popeye thing reminds me of the story about carrots – that they were falsely promoted as being good for your eyesight in order to cover for the success of British radar during WW2. I forget if that turned out to be apocryphal or not. (Ninjaed.)

You might be able to analyze these phenomena using LessWrong's concept of metacontrarianism (naive view: "spinach makes you strong", contrarian view: "no, that's just a myth", metacontrarian view: "well, actually…"), which itself could be viewed as a kind of Hegelian dialectic.
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Re: Supermyths: Myths About Debunking Myths

Postby leady » Thu Apr 28, 2016 3:38 pm UTC

Your two examples don't tick the right boxes for an emotional response, which is typically required for static positioning (unless you are a spinach farmer). Whereas whilst a tame example the decimal point, "look at me and my obscure knowledge" does provide emotional benefits

A lot of the QI stuff falls into the "fake obscure knowledge" category for signalling knowledge, but naturally there are a lot of other categories that cause far worse emotional reactions :)

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Re: Supermyths: Myths About Debunking Myths

Postby sardia » Thu Apr 28, 2016 3:43 pm UTC

leady wrote:Your two examples don't tick the right boxes for an emotional response, which is typically required for static positioning (unless you are a spinach farmer). Whereas whilst a tame example the decimal point, "look at me and my obscure knowledge" does provide emotional benefits

A lot of the QI stuff falls into the "fake obscure knowledge" category for signalling knowledge, but naturally there are a lot of other categories that cause far worse emotional reactions :)

The article covers propagations of new errors in the service of correcting old errors. For example, I make up a reason why fat isn't as bad for you as previously thought, but my reasoning in my example is wrong . my conclusion could still be correct even with flawed reasoning or facts.

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Re: Supermyths: Myths About Debunking Myths

Postby leady » Thu Apr 28, 2016 3:58 pm UTC

But I think the interesting part isn't the myth or the debunking myth, but why it propagates. There needs to be a social nature to the myth to drive both its propagation and value of holding to the myth.

If someone told me Spinach has iron, doesn't have iron, missed a decimal point etc I don't care because I'm not that involved in Spinach and I know I'm super smart :). Someone who generates a lot of their perceived social capital through signalling to others their intelligence and knowledge naturally is far more resistant to correcting their own facts and hence will propagate obscure myth myths

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Re: Supermyths: Myths About Debunking Myths

Postby Dauric » Thu Apr 28, 2016 4:06 pm UTC

I can't but help thinking that the Mythbusters would have just blown up the spinach.

Well, they'd have probably built their own spectrometer and lit samples of spinach and iron on fire to look for similar distribution of spectra between the samples, and then if the results of their shop-built lab equipment was fuzzy probably called in experts to analyze spinach. Then they'd have blown up the spinach with ANFO (because plants and fertilizer bombs).

Of course the rest of us don't have the benefit of having a television production budget and the associated research team to conduct direct experiments on every myth, or debunking myth that exists. At some point if you're one of us random jackasses on the internetz you've got to rely on second- or third-hand data. As Leady says there's a social element to myth generation (whether it's a myth or a 'debunking myth' they're both myths) because we can't all be replicating first-hand experiences to verify everything.

To an extent I'm inclined to give some leeway to myth debunking that gets the right results even if they don't get there the right way. The decimal point thing is one of those details that is going to be unverifiable unless someone can positively locate that one specific notebook, however the takeaway that the whole mega-iron source from spinach is a fallacy is correct (mind you the other fallacy in the myth is that taking in more of any mineral is a de-facto 'good thing', when there is a toxicity level for high concentrations of most vitamins and minerals in one's diet).
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Re: Supermyths: Myths About Debunking Myths

Postby Sableagle » Thu Apr 28, 2016 5:33 pm UTC

Dauric wrote:I can't but help thinking that the Mythbusters would have just blown up the spinach.
They'd have had the camera go around it in a circle, facing inwards, first. They always have the camera go around something in a circle, facing inwards.
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Re: Supermyths: Myths About Debunking Myths

Postby qetzal » Thu Apr 28, 2016 11:17 pm UTC

Actually, I don't think you can blame the debunkers here at all. Consider that first, there was the myth that spinach has a lot of iron. Then, that myth was debunked, but it must have been debunked for good reasons. It couldn't have been debunked based on the misplaced decimal story, because that (apparently) never happened. So however it was debunked, the misplaced decimal story must have arisen later. The original correct debunkers aren't likely to be at fault.

Of course, that's assuming that spinach really isn't a good source of iron, and that there never was a misplaced decimal. Personally, I'm skeptical....

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Re: Supermyths: Myths About Debunking Myths

Postby sardia » Fri Apr 29, 2016 12:02 am UTC

qetzal wrote:Actually, I don't think you can blame the debunkers here at all. Consider that first, there was the myth that spinach has a lot of iron. Then, that myth was debunked, but it must have been debunked for good reasons. It couldn't have been debunked based on the misplaced decimal story, because that (apparently) never happened. So however it was debunked, the misplaced decimal story must have arisen later. The original correct debunkers aren't likely to be at fault.

Of course, that's assuming that spinach really isn't a good source of iron, and that there never was a misplaced decimal. Personally, I'm skeptical....

With an article that meta, I was half expecting the bottom to be "just kidding, lol" in big font.

The spinach iron thing isn't even a myth. It's just a research article that was superseded due to better methods and measurements. The metaproblem is me explaining this to you weakens my own skepticism to my explanation that debunks the original research.

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Re: Supermyths: Myths About Debunking Myths

Postby morriswalters » Fri Apr 29, 2016 1:14 am UTC

sardia wrote:The spinach iron thing isn't even a myth. It's just a research article that was superseded due to better methods and measurements. The metaproblem is me explaining this to you weakens my own skepticism to my explanation that debunks the original research.
Why? What are you using skepticism for? I use it to slow me down. It doesn't assure that I won't believe something that is false. I will rely on the most authoritative source that I can get, if it becomes important. However I don't get in elevators without making sure they are at the floor by looking. The most useful thing in the article was
How might a skeptic keep his sanity? I had to know what Sutton thought. “I think the solution is to stay out of rabbit holes,” he told me. Then he added, “Which is not particularly helpful advice.”

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Re: Supermyths: Myths About Debunking Myths

Postby quantropy » Fri Apr 29, 2016 11:39 am UTC

I think the moral is that things are generally not as simple as they seem, and digging deeper shows that there is usually a little bit of truth in what is considered to be a myth. But then you can dig deeper again.

e.g. Flat Earth
1:Before Columbus people thought the earth was flat
2: No, that's a myth, people knew perfectly well that the earth was round, and knew better than Columbus how big it was.
3: Some people maybe, but Isidore of Seville's work was influential for centuries and that had a T-O map meaning that he was promoting a flat earth
4: But if you read his work carefully, it looks fairly certain that he knew the earth was round.

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Re: Supermyths: Myths About Debunking Myths

Postby Derek » Wed May 04, 2016 7:47 pm UTC

quantropy wrote:I think the moral is that things are generally not as simple as they seem, and digging deeper shows that there is usually a little bit of truth in what is considered to be a myth. But then you can dig deeper again.

e.g. Flat Earth
1:Before Columbus people thought the earth was flat
2: No, that's a myth, people knew perfectly well that the earth was round, and knew better than Columbus how big it was.
3: Some people maybe, but Isidore of Seville's work was influential for centuries and that had a T-O map meaning that he was promoting a flat earth
4: But if you read his work carefully, it looks fairly certain that he knew the earth was round.

Apparently the flat Earth idea prevailed in China until the early modern period though, at least according to Wikipedia. I was very surprised when I first read that.

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Re: Supermyths: Myths About Debunking Myths

Postby KrytenKoro » Thu May 05, 2016 1:51 pm UTC

The idea that religion is the primary cause of wars is another one that's been debunked: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious ... sification
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Re: Supermyths: Myths About Debunking Myths

Postby Whizbang » Thu May 05, 2016 2:17 pm UTC

KrytenKoro wrote:The idea that religion is the primary cause of wars is another one that's been debunked: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious ... sification


Arguable.

However, I am not sure why you bring it up. This topic is about myths that supposedly debunk other myths. Mentioning a myth that, in your mind, has been debunked isn't really the topic at hand. There needs to be another layer of myth to your statement.

It seems flame-bait-ish, is what I am saying.

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Re: Supermyths: Myths About Debunking Myths

Postby KrytenKoro » Thu May 05, 2016 3:23 pm UTC

Oh, sorry.

Specifically, it's a response to people like Bill Maher "debunking" that Islam could be considered a religion of peace by claiming that they, and religion at large, are responsible for almost all wars. It occurred to me because Bill Maher videos popped up in my youtube recommendations yesterday where he made that claim.

Not meant to be flamebait, just something that seemed relevant.
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Re: Supermyths: Myths About Debunking Myths

Postby sardia » Thu May 05, 2016 4:24 pm UTC

KrytenKoro wrote:Oh, sorry.

Specifically, it's a response to people like Bill Maher "debunking" that Islam could be considered a religion of peace by claiming that they, and religion at large, are responsible for almost all wars. It occurred to me because Bill Maher videos popped up in my youtube recommendations yesterday where he made that claim.

Not meant to be flamebait, just something that seemed relevant.

It would only qualify as a super myth if your citation in Wikipedia face the wrong reasons as to why "religion causes war" is false.

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Re: Supermyths: Myths About Debunking Myths

Postby Tyndmyr » Thu May 05, 2016 5:32 pm UTC

KrytenKoro wrote:Oh, sorry.

Specifically, it's a response to people like Bill Maher "debunking" that Islam could be considered a religion of peace by claiming that they, and religion at large, are responsible for almost all wars. It occurred to me because Bill Maher videos popped up in my youtube recommendations yesterday where he made that claim.

Not meant to be flamebait, just something that seemed relevant.


The two statements do not quite line up.

You don't have to be responsible for almost all war to fall short of being an exemplar of peace. A rational definition of a "religion of peace" would be one that is engaged in, at least, less conflict than average. It's no different than observing that a peaceful country is one that engages in fewer wars than average.

You could, perhaps, give some religions this title, but I think one would be hard pressed to award that title to Islam.

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Re: Supermyths: Myths About Debunking Myths

Postby Sableagle » Thu May 05, 2016 7:00 pm UTC

Sufi Islam, maybe. Sikhism and Buddhism, too, but you could easily find some bad examples, I'm sure. "Rohingya Muslim minority" sprang straight to mind when I mentioned Buddhism, so thanks for letting me down there, Burma.

How about Wicca and Pastafarianism? They're so famously non-mythical they're almost on-topic.
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Re: Supermyths: Myths About Debunking Myths

Postby KrytenKoro » Tue May 10, 2016 12:25 am UTC

Tyndmyr wrote:You could, perhaps, give some religions this title, but I think one would be hard pressed to award that title to Islam.

Sure, sure. The study in question even points out that Islam is an outlier in the wars-caused-by-religion department.

I was following the formula:

Maher (paraphrase): "Actually, religion is responsible for almost all wars."
Truth: Religion is closely tied with war, does not sufficiently demonize it, and most religions have engaged in holy wars, but religion is not the primary cause of war.
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Re: Supermyths: Myths About Debunking Myths

Postby sardia » Tue May 10, 2016 1:26 am UTC

KrytenKoro wrote:
Tyndmyr wrote:You could, perhaps, give some religions this title, but I think one would be hard pressed to award that title to Islam.

Sure, sure. The study in question even points out that Islam is an outlier in the wars-caused-by-religion department.

I was following the formula:

Maher (paraphrase): "Actually, religion is responsible for almost all wars."
Truth: Religion is closely tied with war, does not sufficiently demonize it, and most religions have engaged in holy wars, but religion is not the primary cause of war.

You're not done yet. You need a 3rd line like
SuperTruth: Religion is not the primary cause of war but the previous reasons given were bullshit.

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Re: Supermyths: Myths About Debunking Myths

Postby KrytenKoro » Tue May 10, 2016 1:27 am UTC

sardia wrote:SuperTruth: Religion is not the primary cause of war but the previous reasons given were bullshit.

What's bullshit about religions not sufficiently demonizing war and having engaged in holy wars?
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Re: Supermyths: Myths About Debunking Myths

Postby sardia » Tue May 10, 2016 2:24 am UTC

KrytenKoro wrote:
sardia wrote:SuperTruth: Religion is not the primary cause of war but the previous reasons given were bullshit.

What's bullshit about religions not sufficiently demonizing war and having engaged in holy wars?

This is a thread about Supermyths, not myths or the debunking of said myths. A supermyth is an erroneous debunking of a commonly held belief. You only debunked a myth about religion, that's why I said it didn't qualify. Does that make sense? Sorry about how meta this is.

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Re: Supermyths: Myths About Debunking Myths

Postby KrytenKoro » Tue May 10, 2016 7:56 pm UTC

Oh okay.

Sorry guys, I really wasn't trying to heckle or anything, it's just a myth I heard recently that I thought would be applicable.
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Re: Supermyths: Myths About Debunking Myths

Postby wumpus » Wed May 18, 2016 3:40 pm UTC

While the idea of debunking the mythical debunking is interesting, I have to question the utility of debunking a "just so story" and use a term as charged as "debunking" for it. When are trying to determine a specific historical effect (not so much an event, but what it meant), you are going to have some amazingly large error bars. So while the new debunked "just so story" might have lower error bars (and be much more accurate according to Occam), it isn't going to be all that much an improvement.

I'd like to think that "debunking" would mean something that can be shown with repeatable evidence to be true (preferably somewhat more rigorous than Mythbusters' "it blew up better"). It is always good to understand a falacy and how it came about (especially to avoid it in the future), but you should be careful how much weight you put into these "just so stories".

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Re: Supermyths: Myths About Debunking Myths

Postby Tyndmyr » Wed May 18, 2016 3:54 pm UTC

One thing I notice frequently on social media is an obviously fabricated story created solely for use as a strawman to "debunk". Seems applicable. Obviously, this has been around for quite a while, and thus the practice of utilizing a "debunking" argument to spread a myth seems to be...pretty old.

Just layers, all the way down.

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Re: Supermyths: Myths About Debunking Myths

Postby KnightExemplar » Wed May 18, 2016 6:26 pm UTC

Tyndmyr wrote:One thing I notice frequently on social media is an obviously fabricated story created solely for use as a strawman to "debunk". Seems applicable. Obviously, this has been around for quite a while, and thus the practice of utilizing a "debunking" argument to spread a myth seems to be...pretty old.

Just layers, all the way down.


A good example of this was on my Facebook feed just a few days ago. Someone claimed that Pastafarianism was a legitimate religion and then painstakingly debunked it.

Also, I don't use Facebook.
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