Monday, April 22, 2013

Most of What You Heard Is Wrong

A week later, it is easy to look back and note that most of the early reports on the bombings in Boston were wrong. Three to five bombs, 20 to 30 people injured, a suspect or suspects in custody — these were the main points of the story hours after the incident, and all were speculative embellishments used as a substitute for facts. If we bemoan this kind of error in news reporting, though, it happens far more often in the other areas of our lives. It is the result of our story-teller nature. When facts don’t seem to go together, we collect more facts, just enough to form a narrative, even if the facts we can get are suspect. As better facts come in, we may swap out facts and adjust the story, cling to the original story, or just get more confused. I remember adjusting my own narrative of the bombings when the number of bombs declined from possibly five to definitively just two. It was disconcerting to make even this small adjustment, as I had to concede that I had been wrong in my previous understanding. People who have more of an emotional attachment to a narrative may have more resistance to updated facts. Though we are reluctant to admit it, this is the way the human mind processes facts. They emerge from a mishmash of emotion, speculation, story-telling, and hearsay. It is no wonder if it is an imperfect process. How it happens at all is something philosophers have long labored to explain.