Bold assertion

“Think about it: every time there’s a list of the 100 greatest records of all time, all those albums were recorded in two days.
Jack White, the White Stripes, Observer Music Monthly November 2004

Think about it? This is 2005! Why think when you can Google? A search for “greatest records of all time” will take you to Rolling Stone’s readers’ poll, in which you’ll find such classics as Sgt Pepper’s, OK Computer, Dark Side of the Moon and, er, Achtung Baby. Top of their poll was the Beatles’ Revolver. It’s a familiar selection, reflected in countless other polls and surveys. Among musicians and music writers, certain albums tend to do even better, notably the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, a perennial critics’ favourite, chosen as the greatest album ever made by Mojo magazine in 1995.

Revolver was not recorded in two days. In fact, it was recorded over eight weeks and, like Sgt Pepper’s, is considered by many to be such a landmark album precisely because of the innovative and extensive use of technology, mixing and production in the studio. Brian Wilson spent four months recording the backing tracks alone for Pet Sounds. The recording of Dark Side of the Moon took place between June 1972 and January 1973. Ok Computer took several months, spread over a couple of years, to record. Need I go on? Jack White is plain, demonstrably, wrong, a fact his interviewer seemed to miss.

Getting your facts wrong is such a basic mistake that it barely registers as a bad argumentative move. Yet it is probably one of the most common and easily missed. Goebbels said that “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it people will eventually come to believe it.” He could equally have said that if you state an untruth boldly and confidently enough, people are remarkably willing to accept what you say as true. This, incidentally, is a major problem with eye-witness testimony. Psychology experiments have shown that witnesses who are most confident about their recollections are both the most likely to be believed and the least likely to be accurate in their reports.

It seems that unless we have a particular reason to doubt the truth of a claim, we tend to assume it is right. And it would indeed be difficult to be sceptical about every claim we heard which we didn’t know for sure to be true. “Innocent until proven guilty” is the principle that allows us to get on with our lives without having to constantly stop and question.

However, what is most striking about the power of bold assertion is that it can make us accept things which even the briefest reflection would show to be false. You only have to think for a moment about what the so-called greatest records of all time are to realise straight away that very few were recorded in just a couple of days. Innocent until proven guilty, maybe. But so often we know the facts that show the bold asserter is guilty and let them off all the same.

Nor should we comfort ourselves that when the subject is more serious than top 100 albums, we are careful enough about the claims we accept. We often accept uncritically the things people say, particularly if we admire or support them, just as groundlessly as we dismiss claims made by their critics.

Not convinced? A few paragraphs ago I made a claim about what experiments had showed about the reliability of eye witness testimony. Do you know whether that claim is true or not? If you don’t, did you stop and question it? Probably not, unless you are sceptical of me or this column in general, and were actively looking for points to undermine. You probably just accepted it as true because you have no particular reason to doubt me and it sounds plausible. Operating by those principles works most of the time and saves us a lot of trouble. But it also makes it all too easy for people, deliberately or not, to take advantage our tendency not to question simple assertions. No dodgy reasoning is required if you can get a simple falsehood accepted. And doing that is easier than we might hope.

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