The "Myths List" is a communication antipattern

08 Aug 2019 Gregory J. Stein

I can’t tell you the number of articles I’ve read devoted to “debunking myths”. They try to communicate the author’s opinion by listing a set of negative examples, often with section headings labeled Myth #1, Myth #2, etc. At best, it’s an easy way of building up a straw-man argument, yet at worst, such an article confuses the reader, filling their screen with potentially contentious or confusing statements. Try as I might, I rarely find these Myth List articles compelling. One particularly problematic article I recently came across boasted a headline of the form “10 Myths about […]” whose in-article headings were simply all the myths. At the start of every new section, I needed to remind myself that the author’s belief was opposite to what was written on the page. As you might imagine, the article was far from compelling.

Worse still are articles in which the author’s goal is to persuade rather than inform, and whether or not myths are actually myths is a contentious point.

The mental hoops I sometimes have to jump through to figure out what the author is trying to communicate rarely outweigh the benefits they might have gotten by introducing an opposing viewpoint. In succinctly summarizing only a point of view that is not being arguing for, the author introduces a cognitive dissonance in the reader that need not exist. Many such articles could benefit from a more clearly presented statement of the author’s viewpoint. Even having both views side-by-side would be a massive improvement, and could be made even clearer by adding visual markers to indicate which statement agrees with the author’s. Particularly in the modern era in which online attention span is limited and skimming is the norm, it is to the author’s benefit to make their article as skimmable as possible. Myth lists are in direct conflict with this goal, since the author’s perspective is often only fleshed out in the body of the text.

As always, I welcome your thoughts (and personal anecdotes) in the comments below or on Hacker News.