Friday, June 27, 2008
Fucking fascinating (or, yep, that's right, repeat after me: Obama embraced Christianity as a young man, and is still holding on strong)
Your Brain Lies to You
By SAM WANG and SANDRA AAMODT
FALSE beliefs are everywhere. Eighteen percent of Americans think the sun revolves around the earth, one poll has found. Thus it seems slightly less egregious that, according to another poll, 10 percent of us think that Senator Barack Obama, a Christian, is instead a Muslim. The Obama campaign has created a Web site to dispel misinformation. But this effort may be more difficult than it seems, thanks to the quirky way in which our brains store memories — and mislead us along the way.
The brain does not simply gather and stockpile information as a computer’s hard drive does. Facts are stored first in the hippocampus, a structure deep in the brain about the size and shape of a fat man’s curled pinkie finger. But the information does not rest there. Every time we recall it, our brain writes it down again, and during this re-storage, it is also reprocessed. In time, the fact is gradually transferred to the cerebral cortex and is separated from the context in which it was originally learned. For example, you know that the capital of California is Sacramento, but you probably don’t remember how you learned it.
This phenomenon, known as source amnesia, can also lead people to forget whether a statement is true. Even when a lie is presented with a disclaimer, people often later remember it as true.
With time, this misremembering only gets worse. A false statement from a noncredible source that is at first not believed can gain credibility during the months it takes to reprocess memories from short-term hippocampal storage to longer-term cortical storage. As the source is forgotten, the message and its implications gain strength. This could explain why, during the 2004 presidential campaign, it took some weeks for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign against Senator John Kerry to have an effect on his standing in the polls.
Even if they do not understand the neuroscience behind source amnesia, campaign strategists can exploit it to spread misinformation. They know that if their message is initially memorable, its impression will persist long after it is debunked. In repeating a falsehood, someone may back it up with an opening line like “I think I read somewhere” or even with a reference to a specific source.
In one study, a group of Stanford students was exposed repeatedly to an unsubstantiated claim taken from a Web site that Coca-Cola is an effective paint thinner. Students who read the statement five times were nearly one-third more likely than those who read it only twice to attribute it to Consumer Reports (rather than The National Enquirer, their other choice), giving it a gloss of credibility.
Adding to this innate tendency to mold information we recall is the way our brains fit facts into established mental frameworks. We tend to remember news that accords with our worldview, and discount statements that contradict it.
In another Stanford study, 48 students, half of whom said they favored capital punishment and half of whom said they opposed it, were presented with two pieces of evidence, one supporting and one contradicting the claim that capital punishment deters crime. Both groups were more convinced by the evidence that supported their initial position.
Psychologists have suggested that legends propagate by striking an emotional chord. In the same way, ideas can spread by emotional selection, rather than by their factual merits, encouraging the persistence of falsehoods about Coke — or about a presidential candidate.
Journalists and campaign workers may think they are acting to counter misinformation by pointing out that it is not true. But by repeating a false rumor, they may inadvertently make it stronger. In its concerted effort to “stop the smears,” the Obama campaign may want to keep this in mind. Rather than emphasize that Mr. Obama is not a Muslim, for instance, it may be more effective to stress that he embraced Christianity as a young man.
Consumers of news, for their part, are prone to selectively accept and remember statements that reinforce beliefs they already hold. In a replication of the study of students’ impressions of evidence about the death penalty, researchers found that even when subjects were given a specific instruction to be objective, they were still inclined to reject evidence that disagreed with their beliefs.
In the same study, however, when subjects were asked to imagine their reaction if the evidence had pointed to the opposite conclusion, they were more open-minded to information that contradicted their beliefs. Apparently, it pays for consumers of controversial news to take a moment and consider that the opposite interpretation may be true.
In 1919, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes of the Supreme Court wrote that “the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.” Holmes erroneously assumed that ideas are more likely to spread if they are honest. Our brains do not naturally obey this admirable dictum, but by better understanding the mechanisms of memory perhaps we can move closer to Holmes’s ideal.
Sam Wang, an associate professor of molecular biology and neuroscience at Princeton, and Sandra Aamodt, a former editor in chief of Nature Neuroscience, are the authors of “Welcome to Your Brain: Why You Lose Your Car Keys but Never Forget How to Drive and Other Puzzles of Everyday Life.”
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
June 24, 2008
Dying Is Hard. Comedy Is Harder.
By JERRY SEINFELD
THE honest truth is, for a comedian, even death is just a premise to make jokes about. I know this because I was on the phone with George Carlin nine days ago and we were making some death jokes. We were talking about Tim Russert and Bo Diddley and George said: “I feel safe for a while. There will probably be a break before they come after the next one. I always like to fly on an airline right after they’ve had a crash. It improves your odds.”
I called him to compliment him on his most recent special on HBO. Seventy years old and he cranks out another hour of great new stuff. He was in a hotel room in Las Vegas getting ready for his show. He was a monster.
You could certainly say that George downright invented modern American stand-up comedy in many ways. Every comedian does a little George. I couldn’t even count the number of times I’ve been standing around with some comedians and someone talks about some idea for a joke and another comedian would say, “Carlin does it.” I’ve heard it my whole career: “Carlin does it,” “Carlin already did it,” “Carlin did it eight years ago.”
And he didn’t just “do” it. He worked over an idea like a diamond cutter with facets and angles and refractions of light. He made you sorry you ever thought you wanted to be a comedian. He was like a train hobo with a chicken bone. When he was done there was nothing left for anybody.
But his brilliance fathered dozens of great comedians. I personally never cared about “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” or “FM & AM.” To me, everything he did just had this gleaming wonderful precision and originality.
I became obsessed with him in the ’60s. As a kid it seemed like the whole world was funny because of George Carlin. His performing voice, even laced with profanity, always sounded as if he were trying to amuse a child. It was like the naughtiest, most fun grown-up you ever met was reading you a bedtime story.
I know George didn’t believe in heaven or hell. Like death, they were just more comedy premises. And it just makes me even sadder to think that when I reach my own end, whatever tumbling cataclysmic vortex of existence I’m spinning through, in that moment I will still have to think, “Carlin already did it.”
Jerry Seinfeld is a writer and a comedian.
Monday, June 23, 2008
I am gonna miss you like crazy. You were and ALWAYS will be one of the biggest influences on my life, my brain and my use of the English language.
I fucking love you, you wonderful Irish fucker.
My first exposure (beyond the early t.v. clips I saw as a child--and didn't "get"...yet) to Carlin’s wit was through my high school sociology teacher. How fitting. He was one of the coolest teachers I ever had (obviously) and he actually read passages of Carlin’s book, “Brain Droppings” aloud in class. How fucking cool is that? After that, it was all over for me. I was addicted. I bought and obsessively listened to “You Are All Diseased,” and made my friends listen to it my freshman year of college.
It was his rants on religion ("The biggest bullshit story of all time.") were, of course, the words I treasured most. Articulate, funny-as-fuck-all, and TRUE. There was nothing like it, I had never heard all my (non)beliefs uttered so elequantly...and to a responsive--no, make that ERUPTIVE audience to boot! could it be? others also thought religion was a laughable, destructive crock of shit?
It was downright enlightening.I was lucky enough to have seen him with my dad my freshman year, in 1999 and just a couple years ago with my man Fitzy.
Some good quotes from the obits today:
Sums it up well: “It’s his lifelong affection for language and passion for truth that continue to fuel his performances,” a critic observed of the
comedian when he was in his mid-60s.
Although some criticized parts of his later work as too contentious, Mr. Carlin defended the
material, insisting that his comedy had always been driven by an intolerance for the shortcomings of humanity and society. “Scratch any cynic,” he said, “and you’ll find a disappointed idealist.”
Still, when pushed to explain the
pessimism and overt spleen that had crept into his act, he quickly reaffirmed the zeal that inspired his lists of complaints and grievances. “I don’t have pet
peeves,” he said, correcting the interviewer. And with a mischievous glint in his eyes, he added, “I have major, psychotic hatreds.”
And, most potent:
"The whole problem with this idea of obscenity and indecency, and all of these things — bad language and whatever — it's all caused by one basic thing, and that is: religious superstition," Carlin told the AP in a 2004 interview. "There's an idea that the human body is somehow evil and bad and there are parts of it that are especially evil and bad, and we should be ashamed. Fear, guilt and shame are built into the attitude toward sex and the body. ... It's reflected in these prohibitions and these taboos that we have."
Friday, June 13, 2008
I am in shock. This is definitely one of the most affected I've felt by a well-known person's death in a LONG while....
I can't fathom who would be next in line to do Meet The Press. It seems sacrilegious that anyone else would actually do the job. Unfathomable.
Who else is as brilliant, enthusiastic, well-spoken, hard-hitting and *objective* as the man who grilled the likes of Cheney, Clinton, Bush and Rice (just to name a few)??
Just last week, after Obama grabbed the nom, I teared up (with joy) watching Russert talk about the wonderful, historic moment that *we* had witnessed at the Xcel Center the night before. I said to James, "Is there anyone more appreciatively excited than Tim Russert?" About Obama's achievement, but also about the election, period.
R.I.P., Tim, you wonderful Irish Catholic man that I admired so. Your passion is unmatched and you will be sorely missed by the world of (REAL) journalism.