That discussion below in the comments on ‘Memory Tricks’ about memory and how reliable it is or is not, is highly interesting (I think) and suggests a number of other thoughts and subjects. There is for instance the matter of Elizabeth Loftus and her work and what it suggests: that memory is highly unreliable, easily manipulated and changed, a dubious source for evidence, testimony, and information-gathering generally. Not that that was completely unknown before Loftus’ work (defense attorneys have, I believe, long had a heightened awareness of it, for instance), but her research did add some new elements to the picture, and that at a time when memory and its fallibility were in the news, so to speak. That was the time of all those allegations of child abuse, Satanic ritual abuse, recovered memories, etc etc etc – all those allegations that sent people to prison for very long terms on the basis of what seem likely to have been fabricated or reconstructed memories. That poor sad guy just sixty miles south of where I sit typing this, for example, who (it appears) invented a whole stack of memories of his own participation in grotesque ‘Satanic’ abuse of his own daughters, later expanded to include his son. It seems unlikely that any of it ever happened at all – but he was convicted.
And then there is the large subject of how memory plays into the matter of Freud – of Freud’s role in making memory and ‘recovered memory’ seem vastly more credible and reliable than it ought to be and otherwise would be, because so many people were raised on the idea that repression happens often and routinely and can be undone by the right kind of analysis, rather as one might rewind a videotape. Our friend Frederick Crews has an excellent book on that, Memory Wars.
So then there is the question of how belief works, and how skepticism works, and how the two interact, or fail to interact. I’ve been thinking hard about this lately anyway, because of a chapter I’m working on for this book JS and I are writing. I might talk further about this later. For the moment, suffice it to say that I’ve been thinking about the fact that some people learn to be cautious about forming beliefs in the first place, while other people don’t, and that this difference is an important one. It is a good idea to be cautious about forming beliefs. It’s a good idea to be sharply aware that beliefs can always be wrong, that one, we, I, can always be wrong. One step toward that awareness is to recognize various ways that false or unfounded beliefs can be formed. One of those ways, is to have unwarranted confidence in one’s own memory. That’s one of the things I learned from reading Elizabeth Loftus – actually it’s two of the things: how easily we can get our own memories wrong, and how obstinately people refuse to believe that. It’s as if memory is somehow sacred. That’s understandable in a way – memory feels accurate, it feels real and like our own. But if one thinks a little harder, it seems to me, one can realize that that’s an illusion. For instance by comparing a fantasy with a memory, and then trying to specify how they differ. Surely the first thing one notices is that they don’t. And that being the case, how can we be sure we know the difference? We can’t, it seems to me. (Another way might be to consider all those experiments with the guy running into the lecture hall and doing something dramatic and running out again, and then the way everyone’s written answers to questions about the incident give different accounts. Ought to give one pause, that kind of thing. What – everyone else misremembers and only I don’t? Unlikely, don’t you think?)
So maybe it’s relevant that the guy who had such a predictable, generic, Identikit memory of conversations with Bush that took place thirty years ago*, is not a scientist or some other kind of inquirer but a professor in the Business school. Maybe it’s not, maybe I’m just being rude in saying that. But scientists and other empirical inquirers do get quite a lot of training and then experience in, at least, knowing that evidence is not transparent, that it doesn’t interpret itself nor offer the right interpretation of itself written in letters of fire across the sky.
Large subject, as I said. More later.
*Go on, remember a conversation you had thirty years ago, word for word, with some guy you barely knew. Go on, let’s see you.