How can you effectively debunk False Beliefs?

You will encounter people who sincerely and very deeply assure you that something that is very obviously not correct is a fact. You don’t need to think very hard for examples. Here are a couple of very obvious ones:

  • Religion: The Book of Genesis is an accurate historical text and so Planet Earth and also the entire universe is only 6,000 years old
  • Politics: In 2020 Trump really did win the election, but it was stolen.

The objective of this posting is not to have a go at “them”, nor is it going to specifically debunk the above, but since I raised them both I guess I better explain the issues with the above. Where this is really going is that there is a new study that tackles to topic of the strategy that should be used to debunk false beliefs.

OK so yes, I did promise.

The Religious example – Genesis as a literal history text

For those that are not religious, tackling the above is a non-issue, but what about those that do adhere to a specific cultural belief, where do they stand. The most common approach to a text like Genesis is to view it as metaphor and symbolic.

Things that we do know about it are the rather obvious factual errors if you embrace it as literal “truth”…

  • Snakes don’t talk … they can’t, they do not have vocal cords
  • The concept of a day and night in the creation myth is absurd. Day 4 is when God created the sun, moon and stars, how do you have days and nights without all that. If embraced literally, then you need to accept that planet earth is older than the sun and also the rest of the entire universe.
  • There was no global flood. What is true is that flood myths all around the globe are common. Hint: At the end of the last ice age global sea level rose rose by about 5.5 meters when the ice sheets melted. We also know that a 600 years old guy did not put every species of animal, plant, and tree on a boat for 150 days, then drop off the penguins in the Antarctic and the kangaroos in Australia.

Beyond all such glaring issues there is also the rather embarrassing observation that the creation myth is not original. It is a variation of the older Babylon creation myth, the Enuma Elish.

If indeed you engage the folks from Answers in Genesis who promote the literalist view, what you will discover is that even when you point out the many many problems, nothing happens. That’s because coming to terms with it all means re-thinking their entire belief system, so they make up stuff to explain away all of the utterly absurd stuff that a literalist modality inflicts upon them.

Side Note: Answers in Genesis (AiG) are the folks who spent over $100 million building a life size replica of Noah’s ark in Kentucky, and also promote the claim that Unicorns and also Flying fire-breathing dragons are real because they get mentioned in the Bible.

The Political Example The Infamous stolen 2020 Election Claim

You and I know it was not “stolen”. Multiple opportunities for any evidence to be presented in a court of law has been and gone, not just once, nor even a couple of times, but a total of 63 times.

No serious audit has detected anything that would alter the outcome.

Ah but wait, the pillow guy, Mike Lindell, had solid proof. He had the actual data. During his 2021 so-called cyber-symposium in South Dakota Mr Lindell presented 11 files, including binary files, text files, and a spreadsheet, then offered a cash prize of $5 million to anyone who could prove that the data wasn’t related to the 2020 election. Robert Zeidman did exactly that. He showed that it was just random numbers that had been typed into a Microsoft Word documents and then rendered into Hex – it was blatant fraud.

Lindell refused to pay. It was taken to The American Arbitration Association panel. Last April, just a few weeks ago, they ruled that Lindell needed to pay. As an aside, Mr Zeidman is a 63 year old Trump voter, so if there was bias here, it was against this outcome, not for it.

Oh, and let’s not forget that Fox News has already paid $787 million to settle their defamation case. If they had actual evidence and had not simply promoted the lie, then they could of course have presented their evidence. They had nothing, and had to either face going to court with nothing or settle. They opted for the latter. Meanwhile, Dominion is also suing Lindell for $1.3 billion.

Despite all this and much more, the “Stolen election” myth thrives.

Why, what is going on inside the mind of individuals who believe it all despite no credible evidence at all?

That’s a segway into this next item, a study that looked at this very question.

A belief systems analysis of fraud beliefs following the 2020 US election

It was published April 10, 2023 within Nature Human Behaviour, (see here).

The reveal via this study is that just debunking a false claim is ineffective. Instead you need to target the entire system of belief for an intervention to be truly effective.


The lead author of the paper, Rotem Botvinik-Nezer, who is a postdoctoral researcher in the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab at Dartmouth, lays it out like this …

“People don’t just have one single belief but a system of interrelated beliefs that depend on each other,”

“This helps explain why it’s really hard to change people’s beliefs about election fraud, just by showing them evidence against fraud, as you may need to convince them that the majority did not prefer their candidate and address the other beliefs anchoring their system”

OK, so let’s be clear about something. This is a science paper published within a peer-reviewed journal. A claim from a subject matter expert can never be “Trust me I’m a scientist”. Instead, here is a paper that strongly points the subject matter experts towards this conclusion, so what exactly did they do to reach that?

What Exactly did the researchers do?

They started by doing a survey of 1,642 Americans during the 2020 vote count within three key election states, asking …

  • Who would you like to see win? (In other words, they determined what their political bias was)
  • Assuming there is no fraud, how likely is it that your candidate will win?
  • How probable is it that there will be some fraud?

They were then shown randomly allocated maps that showed either a Biden Win or a Trump Win, and then asked again about their thoughts on Fraud being responsible for that outcome.

They also followed up about three months later asking similar questions, but this time using the actual outcome of the election.

What did they find?

  • Everybody, both Democrats and Republicans, increased their belief in election fraud when their candidate lost.
  • Flip that coin over and they again found that both Democrats and Republicans, decreased their beliefs in election fraud when their candidate won

The stronger their measured preference was for a specific candidate, the stronger the belief in election fraud was.

OK, so how do you interpret all this data?

The solution the researchers came up with was the creation of a Bayesian model to understand how people where making decisions.

They fed in three things …

  • Did the participant believe there might be fraud before the contrived and also actual outcome was revealed?
  • Who did the participant think would win a true vote with no fraud happening?
  • Who did the participant think would benefit if there was fraud?

What they did not feed in was who the participant wanted to see win, nor how they updated their belief in fraud when their candidate lost.

The model was able to successfully predict who would update their belief that fraud had taken place.


OK, look it works like this. You have a belief system. As you get new information, you will use that belief system to update your beliefs.

As explained by the lead author …

“For respondents who strongly believed that Trump was supposed to win the 2020 election, it didn’t make sense to them that not enough people voted for him, so for some people, it might have been rational to infer that people from the other partisan group must have either cheated or committed fraud,”

The Co-author, Tor Wager, who is the Diana L. Taylor Distinguished Professor in Neuroscience and director of the Dartmouth Brain Imaging Center, goes on to explain their insight like this …

“Our results show that if you have this other explanation for an election outcome, where fraud is a potential reality, then it becomes more plausible that fraud gets credit for the election,”

“When election fraud is considered plausible, this short circuits the link between the belief in the true election winner and the evidence, So, to change the false belief, you have to focus on the auxiliary beliefs that are supporting that short circuit.”

Is this just about “Them”?

Nope, it is about all of us and what goes on inside our heads.

When faced with whispers and rumours of attempts by Republicans to overthrow the election, I personally find a loss of trust and a loss of confidence in the outcome of some elections. For example, did Beto O’Rourke really not win in Texas and instead the truly obnoxious turd like Greg Abbot actually won a fair election, or was it rigged?

I personally find an ever so strong temptation to fall down that rabbit hole and seriously consider the possibility … but wait … there is no evidence of any fraud, so I resist the urge to embrace that suspicion as “truth”.

The problem for the cult of MAGA, and also all of us, is that you have leading voices screaming fraud, including Trump himself, and also media outlets such as Fox News and others vigorously promoting it and giving it credibility. It creates an entire system of belief that assumes the opposition are all bad actors. This bedrock renders the unthinkable wholly plausible. With such an onslaught, debunking individual examples of supposed fraud does not cut it, we need to go after the entire cult like belief system itself.

Further Reading

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