Does Correcting Fluoride Misinformation Backfire?
Years ago, research papers suggested that calling attention to public health myths and then correcting them could produce an unanticipated “backfire” effect. In other words, people might be more likely to remember the myths than to recall the facts (corrections). This issue has major implications for health educators who promote community water fluoridation. Fortunately, more recent research shows that health providers need not hesitate to cite misinformation and then correct it.
An article posted by the Association of American Medical Colleges reported: “Calling out misinformation does not make the problem worse, as some fear.” The Association hyperlinks to a major research review in 2020 that found that “it is extremely unlikely” that fact-checks will cause the backfire effect. And it was the review’s authors who put those two words in italics.
Although it is preferable to briefly explain why certain content is false, the review concludes that this isn’t essential. According to the review, “simply tagging misinformation as false — with no further explanation as to why it is false — has shown to substantially reduce belief” in misinformation.
A different review examined 10 studies and found that there was no significant difference in people’s updated beliefs when comparing whether or not the initial myth was repeated within the correction.
Thanks to these research reviews, fluoridation advocates should feel more confident citing and correcting false information. In fact, as the 2020 review observes, “avoiding the repetition of the original misconception within the correction appears to be unnecessary and could even hinder corrective efforts.”