Links and Comments: Memory is Fallible; Fundamentalists Are Alike All Over

A couple informed articles appeared today about the Brian Williams kerfuffle, how the NBC News anchor was discovered to have inflated his account, increasingly over the years, of being on a helicopter in the Iraq War in 2003, and speculation about whether he was deliberately lying to aggrandize himself, or whether he ‘conflated’ his own memories with accounts by others. Most people aren’t giving him the benefit of the doubt.

I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, because of the many accounts I’ve read over the years of the fallibility of memory. Memory is not a videotape that gets recorded and then played back without error; our memories tend instead to be memories of memories of memories, stories we tell ourselves (and others), with each repetition becoming slightly less accurate, like a game of telephone (or Chinese whispers, a term for the game I’ve never seen until just Google now), and modified according to subconscious psychological motivations.

[That I’d give him the benefit of the doubt doesn’t necessarily excuse him; in his line of work, the tendency for such memory conflation should be guarded against to the extreme.]

Here’s a good article on Slate, How Not to Be the Next Brian Williams: Ten ways to avoid false memories, by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons, authors of The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us (which famously concerns an experiment about students told to watch a video of a basketball game, focusing on the players, and did so without noticing that a man in a gorilla suit walked through the frame).

Common sense tells us that memory shouldn’t break down to this extent—especially when we recall significant events in our lives. That belief makes us assume the worst of those who misremember. Yet a full century of scientific research tells us that these intuitive, common-sense beliefs about how memory works are often wrong.

The article touches on many of the conclusions of psychological experiments that reveal the fallibility of memory. Some of this has filtered down to popular culture, such as the increasing skepticism about eye-witness testimony (validated by the DNA tests that show many people convicted via such testimony turn out to be innocent after all). The article then, usefully, lists ten tips for “minimizing the chances that false recollections will put you at odds with your audience, your bosses, or the truth.”

Great article; it appeals to my provisional conclusion that common-sense, ‘obvious’ truths are likely false (or true only within a narrow frame of experience), and the reality of existence is not easily perceived, given that it’s filtered through our subjective biases.

The other piece today on this subject is New York Times Tuesday Science Section: Was Brian Williams a Victim of False Memory?. (Curiously the print article is titled “False Memory vs. Bald Faced Lie”)

Memories don’t live as single, complete events in one spot in the brain. Instead they exist as fragments of information, stored in different parts of our mind. Over time, as the memories are retrieved, or we see news footage about the event or have conversations with others, the story can change as the mind recombines these bits of information and mistakenly stores them as memories. This process essentially creates a new version of the event that, to the storyteller, feels like the truth.

Obama gave a speech about religion the other day, and touching on recent violent events associated with Islam, matter of factly pointed out the history of violence associated with Christianity throughout its history. And freaked out the right wing.

William Saletan in Slate: For Christ’s Sake: Some Republicans would rather defend Christianity from all criticism than stand clearly against religious violence.

The subtitle on the homepage: “When conservative defend Christianity at all costs, they’re thinking the way Islamic fundamentalists do.”

Several past and current Republican presidential candidates—Rick Santorum, Rudy Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, Jim Gilmore—have attacked the speech. So have dozens of conservative commentators. They reject the suggestion that Christianity has anything to apologize for. Many go further. They claim that Islam sanctions violence, that Islam is our enemy, or that Christianity is the only true faith. In issuing these declarations, Obama’s critics validate the propaganda of ISIS and al-Qaida. They’re not just pandering to the Christian right. They’re aiding the Islamic right.

Because, the apologetics claim, the Crusades were justified; the Inquisition wasn’t that bad, and so on; anyway, Christianity is the only true faith, they say, without any shred of irony or self-awareness, or humility, even as they condemn the Islamic extremists who think exactly the same about their religion.

The theme is analogous to American exceptionalism and jingoistic patriotism: my side can never be wrong because, well, it’s my side. These are all ideas that appeal to a similar mindset.


In this respect, the debate within Christianity mirrors the debate within Islam. On one side are Bush, Obama, and the millions of Christians and Muslims who reject religious conflict. On the other side are Santorum, Giuliani, Fox News, ISIS, and al-Qaida.

When you start to think that you know God’s mind, that he speaks only to you, that you alone are in possession of the truth, that’s when you become dangerous. And being a Christian won’t save you.

This entry was posted in Psychology, Religion. Bookmark the permalink.