Part 2—Rolling Stone’s broken bottle: Professor Trefil thinks our human brain is a miraculous instrument.
(For yesterday's post, click here.)
On balance, we regard this familiar old claim as dangerous. It may tend to keep us from seeing how weak our human brains actually are, especially given the credulous ways we employ them.
Despite our magnificent brains, we humans are actually rather gullible. We’re easily led to false belief. The recent debacle at Rolling Stone helps illustrate this point.
Here’s what we mean by that:
In its 9000-word cover report, Rolling Stone described a remarkably heinous rape on a college campus.
Indeed, the conduct described was so heinous that some observers found the story implausible on its face. This is why they said that:
According to Rolling Stone’s account, an 18-year-old college freshman was brutally raped by seven undergraduate men at a fraternity event, while two other men gave guidance.
According to Rolling Stone’s account, this was not a spur-of-the-moment, drunken assault. The heinous assault has been planned in advance, possibly for several weeks.
Some observers found this implausible. According to Rolling Stone’s account, the young woman knew the identity of at least two of her attackers. Had she gone to the police the next day, all nine could presumably have ended up in prison.
With malice aforethought, would nine young men have put themselves in such major jeopardy? Everything is possible, of course. But some observers thought this framework seemed a bit hard to believe.
For ourselves, we don’t know what happened, or didn’t happen, to the college student in question. Given the bungled reporting by Rolling Stone, there is, at present, no real way to know what did occur.
Other parts of Rolling Stone’s account also seemed to strain credulity, to greater and lesser extent. But the magazine’s story-telling was gripping, horrific.
Was Rolling Stone’s gripping story impossible on its face?
Few allegations are impossible. But it seems to us that one small part of Rolling Stone’s story pretty much was. This involves an incident from the student’s sophomore year.
According to Rolling Stone, the student reported her rape to campus officials near the end of her freshman year. During her sophomore year, she became involved with anti-rape groups on campus.
To us, that sounds like a good thing to do! But in the passage shown below, Rolling Stone’s Sabrina Rubin Erdely describes some hideous blowback.
Question: Do you believe this incident actually happened? Given what you know of physics, do you believe this incident could have occurred?
ERDELY (11/19/14): Jackie dove into her new roles as peer adviser and Take Back the Night committee member and began to discover just how wide her secret UVA survivor network was—because the more she shared her story, the more girls sought her out, waylaying her after presentations or after classes, even calling in the middle of the night with a crisis...We’ll leave Rolling Stone’s account right there, although we’ll resume there tomorrow. For now, let’s only say this:
But payback for being so public on a campus accustomed to silence was swift. This past spring, in separate incidents, both Emily Renda and Jackie were harassed outside bars on the Corner by men who recognized them from presentations and called them "cunt" and "feminazi bitch." One flung a bottle at Jackie that broke on the side of her face, leaving a blood-red bruise around her eye.
She e-mailed [Dean Nicole] Eramo so they could discuss the attack—and discuss another matter, too, which was troubling Jackie a great deal.
Rolling Stone describes the student meeting with a dean, “a bruise still mottling her face.” At this point, let’s put our miraculous brains to work.
Do we believe the college student was assaulted in the manner described? Do we believe that someone outside a bar angrily threw a bottle at her, hitting her in the face?
More specifically, do we believe that she was hit with so much force that the bottle actually “broke on the side of her face?” Do we believe that this could happen without the student being seriously injured, possibly even killed?
We’ve all seen cowboys break beer bottles over other cowboys’ heads. But that happens in movies—and that isn’t what Rolling Stone says occurred in this instance.
According to Rolling Stone, someone threw a bottle at the student, and the bottle was thrown with such force that it actually broke on her face. Do you believe that occurred?
This is only one small episode in a 9000-word report. For the record, it may be an embellished account of something the student said.
It’s clear from the way she handled this piece that Rolling Stone’s reporter is an unreliable narrator. We don’t know if this small story-within-the-story represents a faithful account of something the student said.
We do know this:
At some point, Rolling Stone’s editor read this gripping report. It included that account of the beer bottle breaking on the student’s face. (We’re assuming it was a beer bottle.)
Given his miraculous brain, did the editor ask if such an incident could have occurred? Did he question the claim that a bottle was thrown with such force that it actually broke on her face?
Almost everything is possible. We’re not sure this is.
And yet, Rolling Stone was telling a gripping story, a story about deeply heinous conduct. Given the way our human brains work, we routinely get swept along when professional writers tells us very good stories.
In various forms, this has been a deadly part of our journalism for a good many years. The convincing deceptions we get fed have often been swallowed down whole.
Did the student actually say that she was hit in the face by a bottle? Did she say she was hit so hard that the bottle broke on her face?
We don’t know if the student said that, but the Rolling Stone journalist did. It seems to us that this almost surely couldn’t have happened. But this claim was just one part of a gripping, convincing tale.
Alas! When professional writers start telling good tales, we can get swept along all too easily. Over the past thirty years, our journalism has often been driven by such journalistic misconduct.
People are dead all over the world because our brains weren’t able to see that we were getting conned, taken for a very bad ride. As he ponders quantum mechanics, Professor Trefil doesn’t seem to have noticed these widespread human fails.
Tomorrow: The journalist doesn’t ask