Part 1—Our miraculous brain in action: As Rolling Stone’s folly kept unfolding, we were struck by something we read in the Outlook section of Sunday’s Washington Post.
We refer to a standard description of the greatness of our human brain. The description appeared at the start of a book review by Professor Trefil.
What you see below is a thoroughly standard account of our human greatness. At least in the west, we humans have glorified ourselves in this way since the dawn of time:
TREFIL (12/7/14): The human brain, that marvelous instrument we all carry around in our skulls, evolved for one purpose and one purpose only: to allow our ancestors to survive on the African savannah millions of years ago. Over the millennia, the brain got very good at its task, keeping our ancestors fed and out of the clutches of saber-toothed tigers and their ilk. Yet despite its humble origins, that same brain can understand general relativity, plot the course of distant galaxies and comprehend the working of our very cells. In fact, it is little short of miraculous that no matter where we go in the universe, no matter what new phenomena we investigate, our brain seems to be at home.As he continued, Professor Trefil described the “one exception” in this overall pageant of human brilliance:
“Since the dawn of the 20th century, when scientists began exploring the inside of the atom, it has become increasingly clear that the brain is simply not designed to be comfortable with what goes on at that level,” he said.
Professor Trefil went on to write a decent book review. Still, the analysts howled at his description of the “marvelous instrument we all carry around in our skulls.”
They’d already spent many hours researching Rolling Stone’s deeply unfortunate folly. In that context, they were struck by the professor’s upbeat account of the marvelous instrument we all have in our heads.
How marvelous, how “miraculous,” is that instrument really? Ritual self-praise of this type may keep us from seeing how poorly our human brains actually function.
Case in point—the unfolding debacle at the Stone, a case which sheds a lot of light on our Age of (True) Belief.
Let’s be clear. We’re writing here about Rolling Stone, not about the college student whose remarkable story the magazine didn’t attempt to fact-check.
By now, it’s abundantly clear that no one knows what actually happened, or didn’t happen, to the student in question. By way of contrast, we think it’s fairly clear what Rolling Stone foolishly did.
To provide a bit of context, consider something Charles Blow says in his latest New York Times column. Writing about our new age of activism, columnist Blow says this:
BLOW (12/8/14): The suspicion of bias, in particular, is what the most recent protests have been about. They are about a most basic question concerning the nature of humanity itself: If we are all created equal, shouldn’t we all be treated equally? Anything less is an affront to our ideals.Certain high-profile incidents “make easy focal points for rallying cries,” Blow correctly says. We’d say there’s a key word in that passage:
Bias in the system often feels like fog in the morning: enveloping, amorphous and immeasurable. But individual cases, like the recent ones, hit us as discrete and concrete, about particular unarmed black men killed by particular policemen—although those particular policemen are representative of structures of power.
These cases make easy focal points for rallying cries, and force us to ask tough questions about the very nature of policing, force and justice.
That key word is “easy.”
Can we speak in somewhat unflattering terms about Blow’s presentation? Might we paraphrase a bit as we do?
Quite correctly, Blow says it’s relatively hard to make a case about social injustice based upon general claims of bias or misconduct. But he says it’s “easy” to rally the world if we come up with the right “individual cases.”
Trayvon Martin was one such case; so was Michael Brown. So were the heinous events described in Rolling Stone—the startling claims that Rolling Stone didn’t attempt to check.
(So was the story in “Jimmy’s World,” the 1980 journalistic hoax published by the Washington Post, whose editors made no attempt to fact-check Janet Cooke’s Pulitzer-wining report. So were the stories of heinous preschool abuse which sent innocent people to prison in the 1980s.)
It’s an old joke in journalism—some stories are “too good to check.” Often, to make real stories better, bogus facts may be allowed to find their way into the mix.
Michael Brown wasn’t shot in the back. George Zimmerman didn’t fire “a warning shot,” then “a kill shot,” as the New York Times falsely reported. Whatever happened in those cases, those claims turned out to be false.
It now seems fairly clear that Rolling Stone’s story was full of bogus claims—claims the magazine didn’t bother to check.
Despite the miraculous brain we love to discuss, this has been happening in our upper-end journalism for decades now. In the political realm, some of these hoaxes have changed the history of the world—and we liberals still refuse to acknowledge the fact that these hoaxes even occurred!
Rather plainly, Rolling Stone has created a new journalistic debacle. On the brighter side, this debacle helps shed light on the functioning of our highly imperfect brains, and on the role of bogus facts in rallying us to certain types of belief.
We’ll examine various aspects of this episode all week. Spoiler alert:
In point of fact, our human brains often function quite poorly. As a general matter, our academic and journalistic elites still haven’t discovered this fact.
Tomorrow: Do you believe in physics? Rolling Stone and the broken bottle