Did Brian Williams lie, exaggerate, or misremember?
If he originally reported the truth behind the events in Iraq more than a decade ago, and those events were filmed and broadcast on the nightly news, then why didn’t he fact-check himself before going on national television and recounting a false version of those same events? Surely, as a journalist, he knew the original video was out there for anyone to watch.
One of the more unsettling recent scientific discoveries is the fact that your behavior is influenced every day by unwanted, unconscious social and cultural biases.
Sure, you accept that some people think in certain ways that you don’t because they’ve absorbed cultural norms that you didn’t, but what about your own mind? It can seem as if once you’ve recognized your own contributions to racism and privilege you should then be able to proceed with a clean slate, rebooted with the awareness of your own ignorance, but free from it.
In this episode, two stories, one about a football game that split reality in two for the people who witnessed it, and another about what happened when a naked man literally appeared out of thin air inside a couple’s apartment while they were getting ready for work.
In story one, you’ll learn how, in 1951, a brutal game of football between Dartmouth and Princeton launched the modern psychological investigation into preconceived notions, models of reality, and how no matter our similarities we each see a different version of the truth depending on the allegiances and alliances we form as adults.
Lions love catnip.
They will roll around and lick and do all the things a house cat does when handed a toy filled with the psychedelic kitty-cat plant. Not all big cats are equally susceptible to the plant’s chemical powers, and within a single species some respond more than others, including house cats. I bet it’s a real bummer to learn your pet cat is immune to catnip, but that’s genetics for you.
What is the capital of Bulgaria? If you don’t know, just take a guess. Seriously, any answer will be fine. Even Bolgonia – I won’t know, just say something so we can move on.
Ok, now, what is the capital of Italy? Are you sure about that?
Now take a moment and think about your own thinking. How confident are you right now that your guesses are correct? Very confident? What about being wrong? Can you feel an intuition about your own wrongness? If so, can you also feel the strength of that intuition? Maybe you don’t feel like one of your answers is a guess at all (especially if you live near Bulgaria). Maybe you feel that way about both answers. If you feel that way, how confident are you that you aren’t guessing and that you know for sure you know what you know and that you know what you know is a fact?
The guess, as a concept, is the fruit fly of cognitive science. Research into what goes on in your head when you guess has opened many doors, launched many explorations into how the brain works. It’s a perfect, simple, easy to produce metacognition. If you want to learn more about thinking about thinking, make people guess.
It’s difficult to be certain of much in life.
Not only are you mostly uncertain of what will happen tomorrow, or next year, or in five years, but you often can’t be certain of the correct course of action, the best place for dinner, what kind of person you should be, or whether or not you should quit your job or move to a new city. At best, you are only truly certain of a handful of things at any given time, and aside from mathematical proofs – two apples plus two apples equals four apples (and even that, in some circles, can be debated) – you’ve become accustomed to living a life in a fog of maybes.
Most of what we now know about the world replaced something that we thought we knew about the world, but it turned out we had no idea what we were talking about. This is especially true in science, our best tool for getting to the truth. It’s a constantly churning sea of uncertainty. Maybe this, maybe that – but definitely not this, unless… Nothing raises a scientist’s brow more than a pocket of certainty because it’s usually a sign that someone is very wrong.