False memories and journalism

We like to think of ourselves as a collection of our memories, and of each memory as a snapshot of an event in our lives. Sure, we all know that our minds aren’t as sturdy as our computer’s hard-drive, so these snapshots decay over time, especially the boring ones — that’s why most of us can’t remember what we had for breakfast 12 years ago. We are even familiar with old snapshots rearranging their order and losing context, but we don’t expect to generate vivid and certain memories of events that didn’t occur. How could we have a snapshot of something that didn’t happen?

This view of memory is what makes Brian Williams’ recent fib about being on board a helicopter that was hit by two rockets and small arms fire in Iraq 12 years ago, so hard to believe. There was indeed a helicopter that was forced to land on that day, but the downed aircraft’s crew reports that Williams was actually on a helicopter about an hour behind the three that came under fire. Williams has apologized for his story, saying he conflated his helicopter with the downed one. To this, Erik Wemple voices the popular skepticism that “‘conflating’ the experience of taking incoming fire with the experience of not taking incoming fire seems verily impossible.”

But research into false memories suggests that such constructed memories as Williams’ do occur. In this post, I want to discuss these sort of false memories, share a particularly interesting example, and then discuss what this might mean for journalism.

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Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Missing Replication

Sherlock_holmes_pipe_hatIn 1959 at the University of Cambridge, C.P. Snow delivered his (now infamous) Rede lecture on the Two Cultures of science and humanities (or his derogatory term for the latter — ‘literary intellectuals’). Although Snow was both a writer and a scientist, his lecture was largely anti-humanities. It is unclear if the divide between science and humanities has narrowed since Snow’s time, but his influence remains even in the ‘third culture’ that is trying to bridge the gap. This year, the divide was evident in Steven Pinker’s patronizing olive branch to the humanities. He advocated that “science is not your enemy”, but didn’t bother to highlight the commonalities of the two fields, only suggesting how the humanities can be more like science, without any serious discussion of what science can learn from the humanities. I feel like this is not productive, and if we want unity then we should look for lessons in both directions.

A good starting point is to look at an ongoing crisis in science — the replicability crisis in psychology — and see if the humanities can offer some insight. Unfortunately, my knowledge of literature is limited to popular culture, and so I will turn to Sherlock Holmes. Holmes is not new to psychology; psychologists evaluated the fictional character’s IQ (Radford, 1999), tested the rigour of his methods (Snyder, 2004), used him as a quintessential model of expertise (Didierjean & Gober, 2008), and even suggested that neuroscientists are just like Holmes in their search for clues about the brain’s innerworkings (Kempster, 2006). It is not surprising to see so much cross-talk between psychology and literature because in many ways we can think of both as ways to explore and share insights into human nature. Of course, I am far from unique in suggesting this, there is at least one popular blog — Maria Konnikova’s Literally Psyched — that draws insights from literature and tests those insights with psychology. Maria can’t resist Sherlock either, recently publishing a self-help book offering you the secrets to a Holmesian mind. However, my goal isn’t to learn secrets to good science from the fictional character’s deductive prowess.
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