The “Backfire Effect” occurs when people’s firmly held beliefs are challenged, causing them to harden their oppositional stance.
The emergence of toxic mold illness in the 1980’s met with it a high degree of resistance and backlash however, this is understandable and quite reasonable for something so unfamiliar.
Denial from doctors or family and friends who had not encountered toxic mold made sense and the need arose to create “toxic mold awareness.”
So far, so good.
The first wave of mold advocates used original source material and presented the evidence as it was being discovered.
This was before the internet.
Information was generally in small newsletters and pamphlets which only had a small circulation. Even now, one can look back at these old newsletters and see that the state of knowledge was 25 years ago. Generally quite accurate and reliable.
Then, all of that changed.
The internet was invented, giving rise to a new breed of mold advocate. Ones who had not been in mold groups back in the days of newsletters, pamphlets, and town hall meetings. Those who became ill in the early internet days got their information almost completely from the internet, so they launched their blogs like this:
“Nothing is known about toxic mold.”
The very people claiming they want to “Raise Mold Awareness” were miseducating their followers by removing nearly all evidence that came before. People trusted these new mold experts because they got sick themselves, categorizing this information as trustworthy.
What sick person would lie about it?
You would think that an expert wouldn’t deliberately remove information, but would add value to what was known before.
This is not what happened.
Prior to the internet, the mold that caught the public’s imagination was the toxic mold, Stachybotrys. This is what gave rise to “toxic mold illness.” This made black mold scary and imperative to study. The new mold experts said, “All mold is bad.”
Doctors and researchers knew this wasn’t true so the mold awareness they were raising actually had the opposite effect.
Lending itself to those who were already set on denial.
Then it got worse.
The new trustworthy mold experts had said, “Nothing is known.”
Deniers believed this was perfectly correct for there was nothing to know, but the followers of these newbie experts echoed this sentiment, and moved to block those pointing back to what was known.
Here are a few examples of this phenomena:
- The early literature indicated that air sampling was unreliable at best and at worst, could almost be counted on to fail to find the large heavy spore of Stachybotrys; which is known to almost never be found airborne.
- The newbie mold experts said any testing is good testing which instilled the idea that people should use this to prove their case, when it was already known for false negatives.
- The old literature showed straight up that Stachybotrys not only fails to be airborne long enough to get to a petri dish test plate, but it’s water requirements and demand for cellulose substrate means these plates were more likely to work against you.
- Special Czapek cornmeal agar dishes were developed for Stachybotrys’ requirements, but of course the petri dish sellers fail to tell you that. The manufacturers knew the flaws of this kind of testing before they put it on the market, but did it anyway because it is what people demanded.
The earliest reports of sick people in moldy buildings were standouts because of a type of illness that didn’t resolve. Attention was drawn to the trichothecene mycotoxins produced by molds like Stachybotrys and Fusarium for this reason, which also made these incidents and these molds a virtual guarantee for intense follow-up and research.
That is until the newbie “Mold Awareness Advocates” stepped in and insisted that no molds were special and that every report of mold is equal to anyone else’s, so it was wrong and even bad to place toxic mold in the context of a famous incident that had baffled the Center for Disease Control (CDC).
Mold Awareness was shifted away from the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) headquarters in Washington D.C., the illness clusters that started the Holmes 1988 Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, the Twin Towers California State Employee’s Association building, and the Dorr Dearborn-Ruth Etzel 1994 Infant Pulmonary Hemorrhage incident.
Substituting that “all molds are the same” and “everyone is different, so don’t look for commonalities” such as the 1984 Quebec City Hospital where the commonality was Stachybotrys exposure.
Now, Mold illness has become so vague with the promotion of “all molds are bad,” that the former impulse for mainstream response from researchers has been almost completely removed.
This is the “backfire effect” in full force, driving science in reverse.
Yet when I point this out, there is even more backfire as people angrily say that since everyone knows about mold now, raising awareness has been shown to be successful.
If you were a toxic black mold survivor from any of those incidents above, you might not think that speaking the word mold led to the desired effect.
Awareness-raising is a process that seeks to inform and educate people about a topic or issue with the intention of influencing their attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs towards the achievement of a defined purpose or goal–The Backfire Effect: Why Facts Don’t Always Change Minds
In a perfectly rational world, people who encounter evidence that challenges their beliefs would first evaluate this evidence, and then adjust their beliefs accordingly.
However, in reality this is seldom the case.
Instead, when people encounter evidence that should cause them to doubt their beliefs, they often reject this evidence, and strengthen their support for their original stance.
This occurs due to a cognitive bias known as the “backfire effect.”
Writer: Erik Johnson, Education and Research Director, Exposing Mold Inc.
Sign up for our newsletter to receive our blogposts in your inbox.