THE AGE OF BELIEF: Do you believe in physics?


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...

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.
We’ll leave Rolling Stone’s account right there, although we’ll resume there tomorrow. For now, let’s only say this:

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


  1. Other histrionic features of the story include:
    -- People rolling around in broken glass for 3 hours without getting cut.
    -- A secret, horrendous initiation rite.
    -- An evil conspiracy exposed by a brave victim and a plucky reporter.

    We've seen all these things in the movies. This entire story is a movie script presented as if it were true.

    1. I think you can have mistakes in details while having the overall gist of a story be true. Distortions of memory affect the details, not the meaning of what happened. If the entire story is wrong, it isn't falsified because of a mistaken detail.

    2. Anonymous @ 12:59, according to many commenters here at TDH, when Somerby gets things wrong, his readers say that doesn't effect the point he is trying to make. So I guess you are right.

    3. @1:16 -- The point Somerby was trying to make is that the details were so wrong that Rolling Stone should have disbelieved them on their face and at least verified them.

      Here is what Rolling Stone said:

      "In the months Sabrina Rubin Erdely reported the story, Jackie said or did nothing that made her, or Rolling Stone's editors and fact-checkers, question her credibility."

      Somerby questions whether this attitude constitutes good journalism. I said something completely different. I said that memory can be wrong in the details while correct in substance. You seem to be saying that Somerby got something wrong. What exactly was it?

    4. No, I was commenting about gist. And TDH commenters. According to many readers, gist is more important than fact. Same point you were making.

    5. The gist is the main point. I don't think anyone says this is more important than fact, but almost by definition it's more important that an insignificant point in error, but it can't be more important than a major, contradictory fact.

      If TDH gets something wrong, minor detail or major fact, you may go check for yourself. He almost always cites his sources. At Jackie's request, RS deliberately didn't check parts of her story.

      I looked up the etymology of "gist," and found it comes from the Old French "gesir," which means to lie. I was disappointed to find that it's the lie as in lie down not as in untruth. But "gesir," ultimately comes from the Latin "jacere," to throw. As in beer bottle.

    6. I looked up the etymology of "etymology" and found it helps explain the candid nature of the most prolific commenters hereabouts.

      The word etymology is derived from the Greek word ἐτυμολογία, etymologia, itself from ἔτυμον, etymon, meaning "true sense" and the suffix -logia, denoting "the study of".

      Etymon is also used in English to refer to the source word of a given word. For example, Latin candidus, which means "white", is the etymon of English candid.

    7. That derivation "gésir" means "lie" as in a rug, not as an untruth.

      Further, the Latin "iacere" means "to repose in state" or "lying" or "thrown [down]".

      Or from this: Gist [noun] -- 1711, "the real point" (of a law case, etc.), from Anglo-French legalese phrases such as cest action gist "this action lies," meaning "this case is sustainable by law," from Old French gist en "it consists in, it lies in" --

    8. What Somerby combox is complete without one of his fans jumping in to explain the real meaning behind Somerby's prose -- the point he was "trying" to make, but apparently failed to do so,.

      Er, no.

      Commenters often post to explain the evident meaning of a TDH entry because the army of ignoramuses, Anonymi, and trolls can't seem to get the simplest points straight. Which isn't a failure on TDH's part.

  2. The broken glass isn't just a minor detail, though.

    1. The term Broken Glass also invokes a movie script.
      Based on real events. About unreal journalism.

    2. What if you don't assume it was a beer bottle?

    3. Of course it would be better if we use the term Shattered Glass.

    4. @1:39 Bob may not know as much about physics as he thinks. The article doesn't specify any type of bottle, and cavitation can cause breakage on contact.

    5. @1:54 calling it "physics" is just figure of speech. A working knowledge of Newtonian mechanics isn't going to give you any insight into the likelihood of the bottle breaking (or an advantage in billiards for that matter). The point is that any critical thinker can see the RS article as being pure fantasy. The bottle is a good starting point. And holding onto a belief that it was actually a special bottle prone to breakage but was unspecified by the article is truly grasping at straws.

    6. "Calling it "physics" is just a figure of speech." See comment by @1:16.

      Perhaps you should have written "physics is "gist" a
      figure of speech."


    8. When someone as clever and witty and entertaining as Jon Stewart is reduced ordinary cursing, he has lost that debate. If he had more good arguments, he would have presented them.

    9. When someone as stupid, verbose, and repetitive as David in Cal misses a point, a TDH comment is inevitable. I'd like a good argument, but phuck it.

    10. "Argument" 's got nothin' to do with it.

    11. Neither do you, but since all particles appear to you to be in orbit around your intellectual gravitational pull you decided to butt in.

  3. The Rolling Stone article seems to be an attack on student culture using the rape story as an excuse. No one seems to be portrayed positively. No one condones rape, but why does our media seem to hate college? Is there a campaign to get the masses to accept a future of low-paying jobs by lowering their expectation that college education will open the door to the middle class? This kind of story would be an excellent deterrent, coupled with the many stories about how unnecessary a degree is (despite stats showing the opposite). I suspect that this has nothing to do with sex or rape but a lot to do with plutocrat agendas.

    1. There are plenty of plutocrats profitting off spending on higher education. But a long range campaign gives them time to diversify.

  4. I think the problem with Rolling Stone beyond the simple lack of reporting and fact checking, but as to the word choice. When I first read the article, I was struck by how extreme the statements were. Every time I told someone about the article, I told him the same thing, namely that the parties had not denied it.

    Looking back at the article, I see that that's technically not true. But if you read the article, especially statements about Dean Eramo stating that the perpetrators have graduated, I got the impression, wrongly, I'm embarrassed to admit, that there was no denial about the incident.

  5. Interesting - Bob seems to think the beer bottle story is obviously implausible on its face because of physics. That may be true. Though in contrast to Bob, I think the average person has the mistaken belief that glass bottles are much more likely to break than they actually are. I would have thought so too, just based upon exposure to countless movie fight scenes over the years where bottles are broken over people's heads.

    But I find the story obviously implausible on its face based on human nature. I simply don't believe that some yahoo at a college bar gets angry enough at a young woman walking by just because she is an anti-rape activist that he actually throws a beer bottle right at her head. That is something psycopaths do. Nevertheless, even if some psycopath actually DID throw a bottle and hit a young woman's head, he would likely be angrily swarmed by every other person around him, the cops would surely be called, an incident report would be made, and the young woman would get immediate medical attention.

    Just one of the many incidents in the Rolling Stone story that read more like a bad Lifetime movie-of-the-week script than reality.

    1. "even if", "he would likely be", "would surely be" , "would be made" ....

      It's the pot calling the kettle black (no pun intended, Benny).

    2. Psycopath and physics are just figures of speech...both with "p"s which, in actual speech, are not pronounced the way you might imagine if your ordinary human brain works in phonetic English.

    3. Carrying on in the majneb tradition.....

      I simply don't believe that some yahoo in his truck gets angry enough at a young man walking by alone just because he is black that he actually calls the police on the kid. That is something psycopaths do.
      Nevertheless, even if some psycopath actually DID call the cops, he would unlike to be angry enough to follow the kid on foot armed, and would surely turn around when told by the police dispatcher not to follow and head straight back to his truck. Surely if the guy managed to get in a fight with the kid he was stalking and shot him dead, cops would be called and he would have immediately been arrested for and charged with shooting an unarmed person.

    4. Sigh ....

      I must pray for the improved coherency of my antagonists.

    5. Yes, you are so intellectually above it all.

      What color is the sky in your world?

    6. majneb needs to pray a little for both his own written and reading coherency since it would appear his "antagonist" directly copied his comment.

  6. Rape is always an uncomfortable topic. I would prefer to hear more about that awful Luxury Conference.

    1. Or how the fundraising is going.

    2. I'm saving that for later. When I get around to it.

  7. I never believe a rape allegation when it involves a "he said she said" with no further evidence aside from an accusation, unless and until a jury delivers a guilty verdict. This of course cost me my progressive card along with a few other sane ideas I've clung to.

    1. So you must think the military doesn't really have a sexual assault problem. Despite the tens of thousands of sexual assault reports and allegations, few of which go to trial, and much fewer of which result in guilty verdicts. All of those ladies, and some men, must be making it up. I guess for the fame and fortune!

    2. No, he believes in the infallibility of juries in rape cases which go to trial with no evidence other than the testimony of the victim and vote to convict.

    3. No, he doesn't believe in the infallibility of juries in rape cases but will tend to believe it is likely the story is true if the accuser goes to the lengths of having the accused prosecuted and the jury also buys it. Short of that, I believe no accusation and if aware enough of the facts of any given case, I might or might not believe a guilty jury verdict. Nice attempt at reading comprehension, though.

    4. "Innocent until proven guilty"? Sounds like a solid standard to me.

  8. I don't have any difficulty believing someone could be gang raped at UVA. Don't forget, this is the university where George Huguely murdered his girlfriend. Certain colleges and universities attract a certain type of person. The school I went to was a nerd school. UVA is known to attract a lot of well-off, entitled young men. It's easy to imagine how some of these men think there are no consequences for their actions.

    Does throwing a beer bottle at a woman indicate a psychopath? Actually, not necessarily. All it requires is that the thrower be intoxicated and lacking in judgment. Perhaps it was an impulsive act that the thrower regretted once Jackie had been hit.

    1. How did you get into a nerd school?

    2. Your mistake is in thinking that "well-off, entitled young men" are a particularly gang-rape-prone demographic. You've watched too many sequels to The Skulls.

      In real life the gang-rape-prone demographic isn't entitled or well-off, nor is it very scholastically oriented. Actually, it isn't particularly white as well. But that's not what the Susan Rubins of the world want us to think about...

    3. Comments like Anon 8:32's are frightening for their stupidity.

    4. What a fascinating event: there's something in it for everyone. Bob gets to attack a liberal publication for actual misdeeds, rather than having to make up something stupid; some other people get to chest beat for various reasons; David gets to talk about his wife's second cousin once removed or whatever, and majneb got to insinuate something negative about brown-skinned people. It's a win all around, and how often does that happen? If she does nothing else in her life, we hope Jackie (? We have no idea who the woman is, but we'll throw her name out there like everyone else does. "Jackie" IS a she, isn't she?) can look at this one accomplishment with some pride.

      We wonder, though, where Bob is going to go from here. Somehow, he must take this one event and twist it into a shape that fits his overarching narrative: "increasingly," liberal publications are awful/dishonest/stupid/crazy/just-like-Fox. It's only one event, after all, which means it has to be teased a whole, whole lot. We have confidence Bob will try to tease it ... not so much confidence he will succeed. But as we said: there's something in it for everyone. For us, watching Bob try is a reward in itself.

    5. Empathetic to the core.

    6. Darling Rachel, you overlooked this one:

      "The point Somerby was trying to make . . ."

      What Somerby combox is complete without one of his fans jumping in to explain the real meaning behind Somerby's prose -- the point he was "trying" to make, but apparently failed to do so,.

    7. 12:46

      He already took "this one event and twisted it into a shape that fits his overarching narrative" in this post.

      "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."

      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."

    8. @11:09 is yet another person suggesting Bob is wrong for pointing out Al Gore never said he invented the internet, which led to Bush's election, which led to some people always believing Sadaam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction which led to deaths.

      Next he will attack the well documented TDH assertion that Chris Mtthews almost got somebody killed.

    9. It is true that I am another person.

    10. Whenever you read Benny J's comments, think Sean Bryson.

  9. Physics? When Britney Cooper managed to read the text messages of the person sitting next to her on the plane I realized I'd never understand Physics.

    There is a feminist/liberal take on rape that is constantly being put the test: all accusations are to be believed even IF WE FULLY UNDERSTAND that they are false. If you disagree, well, basically your a rapist yourself.

    Rolling Stone is stuck with a nut, knows this full well, and didn't ask for corroboration because they know they knew it was bullshit and would win knew friends even it it was discovered.

    Take the Duke Lacrosse book, which reveals that those young men were terrorized by a fruitcake DA and yet, yet, it can't quite let go of the fact that something MIGHT have happened. Well, they are white males after all.

    What sicken damage these kinds of liberals are actually doing to real rape victims.

    1. Couldn't resist Duke lacrosse could you.

      But I get it. If one out of control prosecutor and one "liberal" publication (and if Rolling Stone is to be included, that's a mighty broad category) does something utterly stupid, then all "liberals" and the cause of speaking out for the victims of rape are irreparably harmed.

      Meanwhile, Rush Limbaugh can proclaim Sandra Flook a prostitute, Megyn Kelly can proclaim Santa Claus to the white, Sean Hannity can proclaim Clive Bundy to be a freedom-loving patriot, Michelle Bachman can question the patriotism of members of Congress she doesn't have the guts to name, and none of that ever reflects on "conservatives."

      Cute game.

      There was a time when Somerby actually spoke up against this. It was shortly after 9/11, when Bill O'Reilly found an editorial in a high school newspaper written by a sophomore that blamed America. This was, according to O'Reilly, how all "liberals" felt.

      Sadly, Somerby has now joined that game.

    2. Haha sure, not ALL liberals are anti-Christian man-hating bigots, just the most famous ones. In actuality, many of us are rational fair-minded people. Got it.

    3. Actually, I ignored Duke Lacrosse for a LONG time. Thing is, the out of control prosecutor is still defending his actions, and not without some sympathy from world at large. At the very least the guy who wrote the book. The game, I'm afraid, has devolved to the left behaving without scruples, and playing right into the hands of the noxious right you mention.

    4. Anon @ 9:40 - You really got that "tribal" thing going for you. There are not "liberals" and "conservatives", there are just people. Sometimes people do bad things. It makes no sense to defend the bad things that people do just because you think they are on "your" side or to disparage a bunch of people you have never met because of something some individual has done. Maybe I agree with you that the Duke lacrosse thing was awful, but that has nothing to do with whether Rolling Stone should have checked their sources.

    5. Here's a newsflash for you.

      Rolling Stone screwed up. So did the prosecutor in the Duke lacrosse case.

      I do not feel compelled to "defend" either one.

      What I do resent is the the broad brush approach that goes: "Rolling Stone! Duke lacrosse! See how you liberals always screw things up?"

      It's a tiresome game. Reach for the most outrageous thing that anybody you can call "liberal" does, says or writes, then blame all "liberals" for it.

    6. It's a tiresome game by necessity. Name one public figure who had the guts to challenge Mike Nifong or the Rolling Stone article at the time and wasn't vilified by the left for doing so. If you say Crystal Mangum sounds like a liar you are equated to Hitler and that is pretty much the end of you, with the liberals piling on and no one else to have your back. On the other hand, call Darren Wilson a racist murderer and you get invited to the White House state dinner. Fun game, huh? Critical thinking not allowed, and by decree of whom? Look in the mirror.

    7. Sorry, Anon 3:50 but screwing things up is really all you liberals do these days. Excuse me, "liberals" as you put it, since there is nothing liberal about the majority of the life forms on the anti-right now.

    8. "Name one public figure who had the guts to challenge Mike Nifong or the Rolling Stone article at the time and wasn't vilified by the left for doing so."

      Right. That's why the whole Duke lacrosse team was convicted, because nobody stood up to Nifong and dug for the truth.

      And that's why Rolling Stone is now being compared to Sacred Scripture itself, rather than take the beating it so richly deserves.

      Why NOBODY is standing up for the truth!

    9. " . . . screwing things up is really all you liberals do these days."

      And see how easy it is to get tribal neanderthals to buy it?

      Why point to one article in any publication, and that's how all "liberals" think and act.

      Well, don't feel alone. Bill O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh have attracted big audiences with such stupidity. But then again, it's a huge country. No surprise that so many millions have such well below average intelligence. In fact, it would be a statistical impossibility.

      And they sure have found a way to pander to the crowd that can't/won't think for themselves. Too much work.

    10. The brush, I'm afraid, get's broader and broader as The Salon mentality takes hold. "It is so much better to be falsely accused of rape than to be a rape victim" insists the Salon scribe, taking back the night. Let's let her spend a week in jail and see if She reaches the same conclusion.

    11. @AnonymousDecember 10, 2014

      You parrot typical liberal talking points and simultaneously complain about people who can't think for themselves. Bravo!

  10. The bottle incident sounds like a scene straight out of the film "The Long Goodbye," Robert Altman's take on the Raymond Chandler novel starring Elliot Gould. A mobster breaks a bottle on the face of his beautiful girlfriend, ruining her looks forever, just to show Philip Marlowe what he's capable of. A little Reagan-style reality-movie confusion?

    Then again, from what I've heard of the Ferguson protests at Berkeley, where some of the country's brightest minds matriculate, one mustn't dismiss any possibility of human thuggishness too quickly.


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