MYTHS used to be about ancient Greeks. They taught us about greed (King Midas and gold) or hubris (Icarus flying too close to the sun). But when authors write about myths today, they mean something more prosaic: a misconception, a statement that almost everyone thinks is true but really isn’t.
As we approach Election Day, the number of such myths appears to be skyrocketing. Myth-busting articles from the past month include “Five Myths About Obama’s Stimulus,” “Five Myths About the U.S.-Iran Conflict,” “Top Three Myths About Medicare,” “Top Six Myths About Medicare” and, not to be outdone, “Ten Medicare Myths.” We all love to see supposed myths debunked, but these opinion articles and blog posts are not as straightforward as they seem. It’s important that readers know how to interpret them. In that spirit, I offer the Top Three Myths About Myths.
Myths are reasonable statements that just happen to be untrue. Myth-busting authors often contrive statements that seem reasonable but on further reflection are so one-sided that they are clearly false. Consider the first entry in “Five Myths About Political Conventions”: “Nothing substantive comes out of the conventions.” The author disputes this by arguing that conventions let the parties shape their images and platforms. But this is no myth. We already know that try as they might, even today’s Democrats and Republicans cannot fail to produce something of substance in four days of meetings.
Busting a myth is the end of the story. Even when a myth is shown to be untrue, it doesn’t stop us from being worried about the issue it addresses. Take one recent post about the “misconception” that this presidential campaign is dirtier than those that preceded it: “the charges exchanged in this election are nastier than any in history!!!” Although the writer goes back only to 2004, one might favorably compare this election to that of 1884, when supporters of James G. Blaine taunted Grover Cleveland, who was said to have fathered a child outside of marriage, with the chant, “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa?” (Cleveland’s supporters added, “Gone to the White House, ha ha ha.”) Without doubt, then, this statement is false. But that doesn’t stop us from being troubled by the level of nastiness in today’s “super PACs” attack ads.
Myth-busting authors provide unbiased information. The format can give the impression that the author is merely replacing mistaken beliefs with impartial, politically neutral information. But most writers use myth-busting as a way to argue one side of an issue. In “Top Six Myths About Medicare,” Mark Miller, a Reuters columnist, assembles mostly conservative complaints about Medicare and argues from a liberal perspective that each is false. And the same can be done from the opposing side.
There’s nothing wrong with making a political argument — that’s what commentators do. Myth-busting, however, encourages readers to think that the author is simply providing a public service. Call that the myth of myth-busting.