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Sunday, December 7, 2014

Truth and Error - Tragedy in Charlottesville

I am reading a book by Kathyrn Schulz entitled "Being wrong: adventures in the margin of error". The chapter I am reading now is Chapter 4: Our minds, part one: Knowing, not knowing, and making it up. At the same time I have been listening to and reading about the accounts from the campus of the University of Virginia that first appeared in Rolling Stone magazine. I have realized that what is in Schulz's book is relevant to the events in Charlottesville.

Everyone who has read the accounts was mortified by just how awful the events described were. I have to admit that when my wife first told me about this and read me excerpts, I was very disturbed but there were elements to this story which began to remind me of the fantastic accounts of preschool molestations (nicely summarized in Wikopedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Day-care_sex-abuse_hysteria). When the preschool molestation cases broke, which were high profile stories for more than a decade and resulted in likely innocent people spending substantial time in jail, I had a difficult time how people could report such stories, which were ultimately found to be false.

The UVA rape story now also appears to be coming unravelled. The account provided by "Jackie" turns out to be riddled with inconsistencies, so many that it is hard to fathom how a magazine such as Rolling Stone could have released such a story, without what appears to be very basic due diligence.

An explanation for these events may reside in our brains and how we remember. Our brains are much less than perfect in terms what and how we remember things. For example, in her book Schulz describes a woman who was literally blind to her own blindness. When asked to described an object placed in front of her, she would described it in detail. The problem was she was blind, literally. Despite this reality she created a detailed description of what she thought she saw and fully believed that object was there. She was blind to her own blindness. While these examples represented an extreme case of blindness to error and current state, we all seem to exhibit blindness to our own realities and errors. As Schulz notes:
In sum: we love to know things, but ultimately we can't know for sure that we know them; we are bad at recognizing when we don't know something; and we are very, very good at making stuff up.
Which now brings me back to the controversies in Charlottesville. It seems that what people recall, particularly the details of especially traumatic events in their lives, is almost always wrong when examined later in their lives. Schulz tells the story of Ulric Neisser, who vividly remembered the day the Japanese bombed Pear Harbor (oddly enough 73 years ago today). The narrative he carried with him was that of a radio announcer interrupting a professional baseball game, telling the story of the surprise attack. Only later did he realize that the details of the story he carried with him were wrong.  Professional baseball is not played in December.

Neisser went on to become a psychology professor and study memory failure, calling into question dogma about the veracity of recalled memories. As it turns out, our recollections of events such as the Kennedy assassination, the Challenger disaster, and the Twin Towers disaster may seem vivid but are almost always wrong, despite feeling so right. The numbers are pretty staggering. Neisser studied the Challenger disaster, asking students details the day after it happened and then three years later. Less than 7% of the second reports matched the initial reports. 50% were wrong in 2/3 of their assertions and 25% were wrong in every major detail.

How does this relate to what has happened in Charlottesville? The story broke two years after the events happened, although even the timeline must be called into question. When something happened is simply another detail which may or may not be recalled correctly. How does one call into question the recollections of someone who suffered a traumatic event without accusing this individual of lying or making things up? It seems that the norm is to recall things with many errors and it should not come as a surprise that her account has serious inconsistencies. All accounts of events in the past will have errors and we will be blind to them.

Truth can only be verified by some sort of recording which is done at the time of the event which ideally can be done independent of human filtering. That is a reality we have to live with. We will be frequently wrong but unfortunately often not in doubt, even when we might be completely wrong.

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