THE AGE OF BELIEF: Truly believing at Rolling Stone!


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.

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.
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:

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


  1. That Rolling Stone story wasn't stupid -- it was successful. It got RS huge publicity, which probably translates into lots of new readers. It got the feminists an issue to justify their undermining of male-centered stuff. Note that the President of UV hasn't abjectly apologized for suspending all the fraternities. Instead she's maintaining the program.

    Also, there's no punishment for getting it wrong. Nobody's been fired at RS. The student who gave the false information hasn't been expelled from school. In fact, AFAIK her anonymity is still being protected. The pundits who promoted the story and criticized those who pointed out its weaknesses still have their gigs.

    In short, RS and people who believed them behaved quite intelligently, once you acknowledge that their goal wasn't good journalism.

    1. By your rubric, RS scores with every issue. RS is to news what MUFON is to the disciplines of history and science.

  2. If legitimate. This letter from a friend of Jackie's means RS threw her under the bus.

    1. As a UVa alumnus, along with my sainted wife, I was happy to see that most students commenting about the Cavalier Daily letter correctly pointed out that "Jackie's" seeming depression and her ever-evolving tales of sexual trauma don't prove that anything actually happened to her at all. There's simply no telling.

    2. In the letter you linked to, the "friend" does not offer any details about the night in question. In fact, at one point she admits she does not know what happened that night. Did you read it?

    3. At a college reunion, my wife had a conversation with a classmate that went something like this:
      "Oh, were you depressed, too? You always seemed so happy."

      "Oh, I didn't know you were depressed. I was depressed."

      The point is, lots of college students get depressed for a zillion reasons. It's one thing to observe that there was a change in Jackie's demeanor. It's quite a leap to then decide that the change was due to being sexually assaulted.

  3. Human beings' creation of language, and all things flowing from it are truly amazing. That's not to say that there are not wide scale deficiencies in people's reasoning and processing of information. As to D in C's comment is again disappointingly lame - Rolling Stone has been humiliated. It is silly to claim that it behaved "intelligently," whether or not its goal was "good journalism,."

    1. They should have been humiliated after putting Djokhar on the cover. Now they are remembered for TWO things! They know what they are doing.

    2. The offense taken by the Djokhar picture was idiotic.

    3. Sure. Why would anyone object to a flattering glamour shot of a terrorist on the RS cover when RS could just as easily used a relevant photo of Djokhar like the one linked below.

  4. It would be interesting to understand how certain cases become flashpoints, when others don't. For example, it seems to me that the shooting of the 12-year-old boy in Cleveland, or the Wal-Mart shooting back in August, both were better stories to focus on than the Michael Brown case.

    1. Yes. That would give you three (3) "high-profile incidents which “make easy focal points for rallying cries.”

      Oh the folly of the human brain for focusing on three
      high-profile "individual cases, like the recent ones,(which) hit us as discrete and concrete, about particular unarmed black men killed by particular policemen." Well, make that two black men and on child.

    2. Amazing how everyone forgets why Ferguson became a national story. The story broke in real time while a crowd of people gathered to chant "Kill the Police!" while gunshots rang out in the air preventing the coroner from safely gathering the body. And story perpetuated because the lame Police Chief did nothing but capitulate to the mob.

    3. @1:43 It is truly amazing what you have to do to get the media to pay attention when an unarmed man is shot by the police. If everyone had just stayed home, then having police shoot unarmed men can be safely ignored. Nothing to see here.

    4. The source for the claim of chants "Kill the Police!" came from ... the police. Video of the crowds don't support the claim. The medical examiner's folks spent two hours on the scene. The police chief eventually called out his militarized force before the governor stepped in.

    5. That video would have to be very comprehensive to rule out any such chants. Police would be more likely to hear such chants, if any occurred, since they are aimed at them and are threatening them. I would find it odd if there were not threatening chants, given the out-of-control behavior that occurred in Ferguson and other places on other occasions. I suppose you would have denied that Brown's father said anything about burning anything down, if there were not video of him doing it?

    6. I'm not claiming there weren't any such chants. You're the one claiming there were. That puts the burdens of production and proof on you. I'm pointing out that you haven't shouldered them.

      The police are no more likely to hear such chants than anyone else present and much more likely to exaggerate their number. What you find odd isn't evidence.

      I don't know whether there were zero, one, or more people chanting "Kill the police." And were there no video, I would have weighed the number and credibility of witnesses to Brown's father's statement. Including Brown's father himself.

    7. I wasn't there and I'm not making any claim. You said the police made that claim. I said the absence of video didn't falsify their claim. I have seen enough bad behavior on video that I wouldn't dispute them.

    8. Sorry, but I can't tell one anonymous ignoramus from another.

    9. Yes, everyone is an ignoramus but you.

    10. Look, everyone is ignorant about something at some time. I was wrong once. 1967. May, the third week if I recall.

      Interested parties making self-serving charges don't impress me much. As an expert on bad behavior on video, you think differently.

  5. When you examine how well something functions, such as our brains, you have to do that in reference to some purpose. The purpose of our brain is to allow us to respond to our environment flexibly in order to survive as a species. Period. Exaltation of mind and human beings, especially the kind of language Somerby points out here, arises from religion and the belief that whatever we consider good about humanity comes from association with God (either creation in his image or striving to be admirable in His eyes). I think we are finding such language kind of ludicrous these days because scientists are increasingly non-religious and society itself is becoming more secular. Human exceptionalism is falling by the wayside.

  6. Rolling Stone is like Mother Jones, agenda trumps journalism and ethics. The bio of Sabrina Rubin Erdely indicates she has written for SELF, GQ, The New Yorker, Mother Jones, Glamour and Men’s Health. None of these publications is known for investigative journalism or even basic news reporting.

    Sabrina's bio also says:

    "For the sake of her articles, Erdely has trekked through Tibet, watched an autopsy, joined a religious cult, visited maximum-security prisons, and once tried out to be a Philadelphia Eagles cheerleader."

    Had she shown the same interest in signing up for a journalism course she might have discovered the basic tenets of journalism. Perhaps if the Eagles were desperate enough to fill their cheerleading ranks, college campus rape prevention wouldn't now be suffering the sins of one wannabe Bob Woodward.

    1. Do you read the New Yorker? They do investigative journalism and news reporting in every issue pretty much.

    2. Do you? It is chock full of opinion pieces. Please link to a hard news story they ever broke or revealed new information? Are you actually defending Erdely's attempt at covering a story?

      New Yorker current issue:

      Out Loud: Famous on YouTube
      The Real Crisis of Journalism
      Should the Democrats Give Up on the South?
      Postscript: Ralph Baer, a Video-Game Pioneer
      Where the Streets Have a Name: Seven Addresses that Defined the News in 2014

  7. Blow says in the excerpt above:

    "If we are all created equal, shouldn’t we all be treated equally? Anything less is an affront to our ideals."

    While we are all considered equal under the law and are endowed with certain inalienable rights on that basis, we are clearly not all equal in fact. People are all different.

    Treated different people equally when they require different treatment to meet their needs, has been shown to be unequal treatment under the law. For example, failing to give a child with special needs an appropriate education is considered unequal treatment.

    So, the goal is not to treat everyone equally but to treat everyone justly, fairly, with respect for differences and recognition of the life circumstances and contexts in which we find ourselves.

    Democracy has always been plagued by the problem that inequalities of birth and circumstance make a mockery of the assumption that simply providing equal treatment will result in equal opportunity for all. Our education system is designed to help remedy that so that children from all walks of life will have an equal chance at success in a competitive capitalist society. So far, we are finding that education alone cannot make up for inequalities existing at birth. If we are not willing to invest in further efforts to level the playing field, then we must abandon the fiction that we are all equal (in any sense) and accept that we live in the same kind of tiered society based on privileges of wealth and birth that other people around the world inhabit.

    In any case, Blow sounds very simple-minded to me when he says stuff like that.

  8. "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!"

    I guess "liberals" are a lot like "whites" described by Dyson in the piece described in the other post Bob wrote Monday. Always seeing things the wrong way.

  9. Speculation, but not wild speculation: the atmosphere is so poisoned at this point Rolling Stone set out to prove the evil of white men is such that it's better to show you are willing to trust any young rape victim, because even if they were not raped, in the bigger picture of Evil White Maleness, it's essentially true anyway. As Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote on Salon, "it is so much worse to be a rape victim than to be falsely accused of rape." How long a jail sentence, one wonders, is Ms Williams willing to tolerate for latter?