False Certainty is Dangerous


There was a story I wanted to tell. It wasn’t much of a story, mostly a description of a visit to an anti-war coffee house in 1970 – but before I wrote it I checked my memory against the description of the coffee house in the New York Times.

The two descriptions were totally different. My memory is very clear, very certain, and I have no emotional investment in the details since they don’t alter the way I’m represented or the way people would think of me. As far as I can see, the only difference is that I’m relying on memory while the Times’ reporters were taking notes and wrote down their report nearly half a century ago. I trust the Times. My memories haven’t changed, but I accept the idea that I’m wrong, a victim of false memories.

This is the type of thing that cost Brian Williams his anchor job at NBC news. As described in the New York Times: “The fallibility and the malleability of the human memory is at the center of a national controversy involving Brian Williams, the NBC Nightly News anchor. In 2003, Mr. Williams was apparently flying behind a helicopter that had been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. But over time the story changed, to the point that Mr. Williams recounted that he was the one riding in the helicopter that came under fire.” Mr. Williams career took a detour and a salary cut, but according to US News, he’s still earning $10 million a year.

Hillary Clinton appears to have experienced a similar false memory when she described a visit to Bosnia: “I remember landing under sniper fire. There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.”

The Washington Post fact checker rated this a four Pinocchio falsehood and Republicans used this in an attack ad in 2016. When the Post reviewed the episode, the four Pinocchio rating was unchanged but Glenn Kessler described it as “it is an example of how memories can be forged in unexpected ways.”

The initial report, which set off the current round of concern with sexual abuse was the report by Ronan Farrow published in The New Yorker magazine. The story itself was meticulously reported and documented, and the magazine is noted for the high quality of its fact checking.

In contrast, as John Zeigler wrote in USA Today, “Post-Weinstein standards for reporting abuse are getting lower … While there is a positive side to accusers now being given so much instant credibility, not all allegations are true. You only need to remember this time last year when a jury found that Rolling Stone falsely reported a University of Virginia gang rape and its aftermath. “

The phenomenon of false memory has been extensively studied but is not yet fully understood. A 2002 study published in the journal Memory & Cognition was titled “Are false memories more difficult to forget than accurate memories? The effect of retention interval on recall and recognition.”

The authors concluded “In the DRM procedure (Deese, Roediger, and McDermott procedure, a standard test for memory accuracy) truth is not more memorable than fiction.” Other factors influencing memory accuracy include whether the memory is pleasant or unpleasant and whether it was discussed with others at the time of the event.

One step beyond an honest but false memory is the malicious false accusation, such as the attempt by James O’Keefe, the self-described “guerrilla journalist” who runs Project Veritas, to embarrass the Washington Post and, by extension, the mainstream media in general.

Mr. Keefe, who has a long history of trying to embarrass Democratic and progressive organizations, and had led to the closure of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN ) sent a woman to the Washington Post claiming to have had an affair with Roy Moore, the Republican nominee for the Senate from Alabama. The goal of the scam was to have representatives of the Post reveal a liberal bias and a willingness to publish a false story in order to damage a Republican campaign.

The Post, practicing responsible journalism, detected the sting and reported on Mr. O’Keefe’s dishonest methods – but if Mr. O’Keefe’s operatives had approached a less careful newspaper, they might have been successful.

In any event, the existence of false stories, such as the University of Virginia rape case and the Project Veritas sting, damage the credibility of women who have been victimized. A letter to the editor of the Times stated “It’s hard enough for victims to courageously come forward and relive their experiences. It’s even harder to come forward when people doubt these stories.”

The New Yorker report was a major change in the way reports of sexual harassment in the workplace are reported, accepted and responded to. In the past, women who accused powerful men of inappropriate sexual behavior were further victimized when their complaints were ignored, and they were penalized by loss of their jobs or being passed over for promotions. This has reversed extensively, for the better, but if the reports of harassment are blindly accepted it will not be an advance, just a reversal.

Sam Uretsky is a writer and pharmacist living in New York. Email sdu01@outlook.com.

From The Progressive Populist, January 1-15, 2018


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