The Woman in the Gorilla Suit
Fine column by David Aaronovitch in today’s Times (pay wall), on the way perfectly sincere Blair haters construct a “truth” in which they they believe. The best bits:
This week there have been unsourced stories from Sir John Chilcot [actually they were from Sir John's letter to the Prime Minister] suggesting that the Iraq Inquiry is being held up by official delay on the release of transcripts of conversations between George W. Bush and Tony Blair. As ever, it is imagined that these might provide the El Dorado of Blair haters, the final revelation of the moment when Mr Blair said to Mr Bush that he’d support an invasion of Iraq no matter what.
But there is a very big problem with the binary proposition that someone is telling the truth and someone is lying. I have for a long time been fascinated by the work of people like Barbara Tversky of Columbia University on the question of recollection. What she and others have shown in a number of studies is that our memories are highly suggestible and are subject to continual unconscious revision as we repeat them. “When we retell the events of our lives,” says Professor Tversky, “we do not simply recite the facts; we weave them into a story that has a point.” And we do it without knowing.
The Rashomon effect, named after the 1950 Japanese film, concerns how different people may come away from the same events with radically different interpretations, partly because they have reconstructed them around different narratives. It is quite possible, for example, that where testimony is contradictory even to the matter of fact, both witnesses think they are telling the truth. I certainly know that happens in my house.
Also, we see things selectively. One study from Harvard conducted in 1999 asked subjects to watch a basketball match and count how many times players in white passed the ball. A full half of them failed to notice a woman in a gorilla suit who wandered among the players. Weren’t looking for her, didn’t see her. So when we say it is “inconceivable” that David Cameron or James Murdoch failed to notice X or Y, we may well be quite wrong.
Tagged in: blair rage, chilcot, david aaronovitch, iraq inquiry
But this is not the end of our delusions. We also think that when something is revealed that was private (or, as we now call it, “secret”) then it must be truer than something that was always known.
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