Tuesday, December 2, 2014

More on "Why Our Memory Fails Us"

Today the New York Times published an op-ed by Daniel Simons and myself, under the title "Why Our Memory Fails Us." In the article, we use the recent discovery that Neil deGrasse Tyson was making incorrect statements about George W. Bush based on false memories as a way to introduce some ideas from the science of human memory, and to argue that we all need to rethink how we respond to allegations or demonstrations of false memories. "We are all fabulists, and we must all get used to it" is how we concluded.

In brief, Tyson told several audiences that President Bush said the words "Our God is the God who named the stars" in his post-9/11 speech in order to divide Americans from Muslims. Sean Davis, a writer for the website The Federalist, pointed out that Bush never said these exact words, and that the closest words he actually said were spoken after the space shuttle explosion in 2003 as part of a tribute to the astronauts who died. Davis drew a different conclusion than we did—namely that the misquotes show Tyson to be a serial fabricator—but he brought Tyson's errors to light in a series of posts at The Federalist, and he deserves credit for noticing the errors and inducing Tyson to address them.

Tyson first responded, in a Facebook note, by claiming that he really did hear Bush say those words in the 9/11 context, but he eventually admitted that this memory had to be incorrect.

All this happened in September. After reading Tyson's response, I wondered why it didn't include a simple apology to President Bush for implying that he was inciting religious division. On a whim I tweeted that Tyson should just apologize and put the matter behind him:

I had never met or communicated with Neil deGrasse Tyson, and I doubt he had any idea who I was, so it was somewhat to my surprise that he replied almost immediately:

A few days later, Tyson issued his apology as part of another Facebook note entitled "A Partial Anatomy of My Public Talks." Hopefully it is clear that we wrote our piece not to pick apart Tyson's errors or pile on him, but to present the affair as an example of how we can all make embarrassing mistakes based on distorted memories, and therefore why our first reaction to a case of false memory should be charitable rather than cynical. Not all mistaken claims about our past are innocent false memories, of course, but innocent mistakes of memory should be understood as the norm rather than the exception.

The final version of the op-ed that we submitted to the New York Times was over 1900 words long; after editing, the published version is about 1700 words. Several pieces of information, including the names of Davis and The Federalist—who did a service by bringing the matter to light—were casualties of the condensation process. (A credit to ourselves for the research finding that most people believe memory works like a video camera was also omitted.) We tried to leave it clear that we deserve no credit for discovering Tyson's misquote. In our version there were also many links that were omitted from the final online version. In particular, we had included links to Davis's original Federalist article, Tyson's first reply, and Tyson's apology note, as well as several of the research articles we mentioned.

For the record, below is a list of all the links we wanted to include. Obviously there are others we could have added, but these cover what we thought were the most important points relevant to our argument about how memory works. For reasons of their own, newspapers like the Times typically allow few links to be included in online stories, and prefer links to their own content. Even our twelve turned out to be too many.

Neil deGrasse Tyson's 2008 misquotation of George W. Bush (video)

Bush's actual speech to Congress after 9/11 (transcript)

Bush's 2003 speech after the space shuttle explosion (transcript)

Sean Davis's article at The Federalist

Tyson's initial response on Facebook

Tyson's subsequent apology on Facebook

National Academy of Sciences 2014 report on eyewitness testimony

Information on false convictions based on eyewitness misidentifications from The Innocence Project (an organization to which everyone should consider donating)

Roediger and DeSoto article on confidence and accuracy in memory

Simons and Chabris article on what people believe about how memory works

Registered replication report on the verbal overshadowing effect

Daniel Greenberg's article on George W. Bush's false memory of 9/11


  1. Replies
    1. Well done? Hardly.

      Even this longer post on his personal blog reads like exactly what it is: a slightly more protracted rationalization -- perhaps (I'll grant) not quite as pathetic as the sloppy apologetic abortion which appeared in the New York Times.

      In fact, the Neil Tyson debacle had virtually nothing to do with the "science of memory," which was just so much weak-sauce equivocation, and the George Bush misquote that Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons focused upon almost exclusively was the very least of Tyson's prevarications.

  2. Dear professor Chabris, while your two articles are very well-written and pleasant to read, I don't think they're really sound methodologically.

    In science, one can only prove a theory to the extent that all its competitors can be plausibly ruled out.
    It is clearly insufficient to just show that one's own pet-theory can account for the data at hand.

    Here, one obvious alternative explanation would be that they lie or consciously embellished their tales.
    What's your evidence this is unlikely to be the case?

    Considering the related case of Brian Williams, he wrote this about events related to the hurricane Katrina:
    "“We had to have men with guns behind me one night because I was the only source of light downtown, was the lights that were illuminating the broadcast"

    "The only source of light"???
    Would it really be that unreasonable to consider the possibility he may have a narcissistic personality which sometimes comes to the surface?

    I'm aware that complex false memories can be implanted.
    I'm aware that eye witnesses can get all sorts of crucial details wrong.

    I haven't seen until now, however, any clear evidence showing that complex false memories can emerge spontaneously in average persons.

    I might be wrong and would be interested to learn what you have to say about that.


  3. I should have said: a complex event highly significant to the person.
    By that I mean that if you were to randomly select a large population sample, take those who believe to have committed a crime and further filter out psychotic individuals, I think that only a very small percentage would remember a crime which didn't happen.
    I think that such studies would be far more relevant to legal concerns than artificially using strong suggestion for creating similar false memories.

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