Thursday, January 31, 2008

A Brief Word on Eyewitness Memory

Fig. 1-1: Your new masters.

Your ability to remember things is slightly worse than a chimp’s and only slightly better than a goldfish, who will still be better at complex motor memory than you. Don’t even get me started on how we stack up to birds – it’s just depressing.

Sorry to get off on the wrong foot like this, but it’s true. Don’t worry, I’m just as stupid as you! In fact, due to my affinity for video games, comic books, and other things designed to inspire ADD in America’s youth, I probably have a worse memory than you. I don’t remember what I had for breakfast this morning. What month is it?

In a recent issue of Forensic Examiner (a forensic publication of some note), an experiment was described where people falsely mistook memories of an unarmed person for memories of a person holding a pistol, even after getting to view pictures involving the person in concentration for several seconds (staring at a photo for five seconds is longer than you think, try it). Even worse, they routinely confused memories of pistols with memories of assault rifles, and if it was suggested to them that an empty picture displayed something somehow menacing (for example, having a street corner described as a "crime scene"), they would later invent new details to confirm that implanted memory.

The same effect was shown to happen in even more extreme circumstances. In one experiment, people were shown pictures of famous events that had been altered, and people quickly responded by saying that that's how they themselves were 'positive' the event took place. At the same time, people who had attended a peaceful protest were shown pictures of the protest edited to contain violent content and images that implied that it was not peaceful. Protestors shown those photographs quickly changed their own memories of the events to suit what they were shown.

In other words, concerning my earlier quandary about what I ate for breakfast this morning, well, if you told me my breakfast consisted entirely of cat food and asbestos enough times, eventually I’d say, “sounds about right!”

In an article I read earlier this week – I could only find the abstract online – the authors cited several studies that indicate just how absurd it is to believe that people can hold accurate memories of events in the long run. One particularly alarming segment, citing such psychologists as LL Jacoby and CM Kelley, read,

“People can misattribute the familiarity caused by previous experience to a current event’s perpetual salience, but under different circumstances can also misattribute the salience of a current event to its past history.”

For example, if you’re, say, William Rodriguez and join a movement whose goal it is to promote the idea that there were explosives used in a supposed ‘controlled demolition’ of the World Trade Center towers, and these people decide to befriend you because they want you to help them sell DVDs, you just might start to really, really believe what they want you to have experienced. Essentially, after you’ve been involved in an emotional, vocal organization like the 9/11 denier movement for several years, it doesn’t matter what really happened: your emotional, gut reaction takes over and tells your brain how to interpret events. Will tweaking this memory help “the cause?” Well, so be it, says your dastardly subconscious.

In another study (I couldn't find a version online, so its full citation is available at the end of this article), on the day the OJ Simpson verdict was returned, people were asked to write down where they were. Thirty-two months later, they were asked to recall that same information. 71% were at least slightly wrong; 40% were completely wrong. And, regardless of being right, kinda wrong, or totally wrong, people were equally confident of their memories. Studies like this have been going on since 1977 at the latest (see end of article).

Several similar studies have been conducted concerning what people remember about September 11, 2001. I could only find one that showed that people could recall what they did and where they were on that day with a consistently good accuracy – the rest (P. Lee, N. Brown 2003 ; D. Shachter et al., 2004 for example ) showed a distinct loss not only in information accuracy, but overall information content. And even that first study achieved consistency only by using a method of assessment that was keyed to each individual subject.

This is because, as the article above demonstrated and as another gets into more technically, memory is contextual and associational. That is, it becomes associated with an emotional state as it sloshes around in your lateral nucleus in search of contextual meaning. And, as the article cited at the beginning of this paragraph reads, once a memory becomes part of a conditioned emotional response it becomes “relatively permanent.”

I took part in what is now one of my all-time favorite demonstrations of human fallibility. The experiment is a brief video, which you watch and then describe according to the assigned goal. You have only one goal while watching this video: count the number of passes of the basketball by people wearing white t-shirts. You can watch it here.

Did you count seventeen passes? Congratulations – you fell for it! Watch again.

You kind of miss the effect on a tiny little Java applet, but if you can get the video onto a larger screen, like a classroom projector, you’ll find that about 90% of people will fail to notice. Why? Because, even in the formation of memories, you’re only really going to commit things to memory that were relevant to what you felt you had to pay attention to at the time – for example, counting basketballs rather than looking for gorillas. Or if you’re running down a flight of stairs to get out of a burning building, any sort of rumbling, booming, or banging noises you’re going to hear are going to be secondary to any immediately-relevant information that will help you get the f*** out of that building.

This is why there is simply no way to be nice to people who base claims of 9/11 conspiracies on the eyewitness memories of people who were there (never mind the quotes that have been taken out of context or simply lied about). Someone with an associational, vague, attention-based memory of a traumatic event that happened almost seven years ago is going to remember things about as well as I remember what I had for breakfast this morning.

The bottom line is that, in an investigation replete with forensic, video, and photographic information pertaining to what happened like 9/11, it should be regarded as absurd to pretend that postulations based solely on later-recalled eyewitness testimony are of any real value. There is no doubt that people had vivid, horrible, and desperate experiences on 9/11 that help demonstrate the heroism that ordinary people are capable of in extraordinary circumstances. However, that does not mean that anecdotes are more imporant to a forensic investigation than what can be ascertained by sources less faulty than the highly fallible human mind. Many people became heroes on 9/11, but none of them became supermen. As vital and necessary as the stories of 9/11 are to all of us, none of them should be taken as perfectly-accurate, 100%-recalled play-by-play retellings of what happened. Eyewitness memory is secondary to evidence that can be assessed empirically and categorized by actuarial methods into predictive models.

Other cited experiments:

-The OJ Simpson memory experiment: Schmolck, H., Buffalo, E. A., & Squire, L. R. ( 2000). Memory distortions develop over time: Recollections of the O. J. Simpson trial verdict after 15 and 32 months. Psychological Science , 11 , 39-45.
-Original flashbulb memory study: Brown, R., & Kulik, J. (1977). "Flashbulb memories". Cognition 5: 73–99.
-From Scientific American MIND: LeDoux, J. (1994). "Emotion, Memory, and the Brain." Memory and Learning: 105-117.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Deciphering the Norman Mineta Kerflaffle

Fig. 1-1: "Is that an affidavit you have there, or are you just happy to see me?"

One of the main inductions made by 9/11 deniers to promote their vague conspiracy theories concerns the testimony Norman Mineta gave to the 9/11 Commission on May 23, 2003. According to the conspiracy theorists, in his testimony, he offers a startling glimpse into “The Octopus” at work: a belligerent Dick Cheney telling an anonymous ‘operative’ to order the military to ‘stand down,’ to let the planes hit. As one conspiracy theory site reads, “fact that the 9/11 Commission Report discarded his testimony has never been explained.”(1) Well, let’s give it a shot.

In his introduction to the Commission (the conspiracy site I just referenced erroneously states that he began his testimony on the 22nd; it was the 23rd according to the Commission archives), Mineta offers a brief outline of his own career serving the United States:

“I have seen terrorism in several forms and from several vantage points over the years, as an intelligence officer in the United States Army during the era of the Korean conflict, and in Congress as one of the early members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.”(2)

So right away we know that, as an intelligence officer (I believe Dylan Avery would refer to him as a “spook”) and later a sitting member of one of the most important foreign intelligence-oriented bodies in the government, one that was intimately involved in the affairs of Iran-Contra, that if we lived in the black and white world of the conspiracy theorists, Norman Mineta would really be one of “the bad guys.” If we were all plagued with the functional myopia of the conspiracy theorists, we would behave as if Mineta were literally incapable of telling the truth.

Those conspiracy theorists, however, have decided that because his words can be used to support their daffy claims, this particular “government shill” has a photographic memory, is always honest, is never confused about anything, and should be considered more trustworthy than 100% of the forensic evidence available to us – even though he has since admitted that he’s probably confused about the issue at hand (see below).

The meat of his testimony, distorted and repeated ad nauseum by the Troofers, is thus:

“I was made aware of it during the time that the airplane coming into the Pentagon. There was a young man who had come in and said to the vice president, "The plane is 50 miles out. The plane is 30 miles out." And when it got down to, "The plane is 10 miles out," the young man also said to the vice president, "Do the orders still stand?" And the vice president turned and whipped his neck around and said, "Of course the orders still stand. Have you heard anything to the contrary?" Well, at the time I didn't know what all that meant.”

And the 'suspicious' fact is that this testimony contradicts what Dick Cheney and one of his aids, Josh Bolton, remembers:

“A military assistant asked Cheney twice for authority to shoot [the Pentagon plane] down.

"’The vice president said yes again,’ remembered Josh Bolton, deputy White House chief of staff. ‘And the aide then asked a third time. He said, “Just confirming, sir, authority to engage?” And the vice president -- his voice got a little annoyed then -- said, “I said yes.”'(3)

In his testimony, Mineta puts his arrival in the secure bunker at “about 9:20” and his questioner, Timothy Roemer, has him reveal that “five or six minutes” later, the above exchange took place. However, the 9/11 Commission states that this conversation didn’t even happen until 9:58. Its source? The logbook of the shelter. This is the only forensic evidence available – the rest is based on either the shoddy or duplicitous memories of Dick and Lynne Cheney which, for obvious reasons, shouldn’t be relied on as historical record.(4) However, no information is given as to who records what in that logbook, or what the procedure is. It could be anything from a high-tech motion-sensing computer to a hotel-style guest book; something towards the latter seems more likely given the fact that it had never been truly needed since its construction under Franklin Roosevelt.

Everyone makes it clear that their memories of that day are imperfect. “At this point things began to happen quickly,” Mineta said delicately of events after the second plane impact. As even the conspiracy theorists note, Cheney was moved from his office in the White House down into the bunker in “less than a minute.”(5) Unfortunately, the conspiracy theorists who want us to believe that Norman Mineta is a living tape recorder have never accounted for the admitted fact that no one even pretended that they had the final word on the timing of the day.

In other words, there are countless explanations for this so-called “contradiction.” Even when confronted by a herd of valiant 9/11 deniers, desperate for any scrap to go on to support their discredited theories, the diminutive Mineta responsibly states that he “might have been mistaken on the 9:25” but feels quite certain that “he was already there.”(6) Dick Clarke said he arrived just after 9:00AM (why don’t 9/11 deniers ever use his testimony to prove that Mineta was a lying spook, too?), and Karl Rove, George Bush, and Condoleezza Rice each recall slightly different timing from each other.(7) Now, if you were about to initiate the worst mass murder and act of treason in US history, wouldn’t you want to at least get the most obvious parts of your story straight?

The truth about Norman Mineta’s seeming “contradiction” is that it is a false flag set up by 9/11 deniers to pretend that there is an argument where there is none. Eyewitness memory of elaborate or traumatic events is completely unreliable, dim or bright, cunning politician or lowly peon. You know you’re dealing with a confusing situation when even the only forensic information (the logbook, which is only ‘forensic’ in the most technical of technical senses) is probably unreliable. In order for the conspiracy theorists to win this argument, they have to try to convince you that 9/11 was not a day of confusion. Raise your hand if you were never once confused about anything on 9/11.

Even the implications of the conspiracy theorists’ claims are absurd at the outset. “Norman Mineta and Josh Bolton recalled different timing in the PEOC on the most confusing day in American history, THEREFORE THE GOVERNMENT CAUSED 9/11?” Someone connect those dots for me.

They use this claim to launch the argument that it proves that Dick Cheney gave orders to sit back and let the attacks occur, with foreknowledge of course. Well, that’s what we’re meant to infer from the conspiracy theorists. Prisonplanet simply asks:

“if the standing order given by the Vice President prior to the aircraft hitting the Pentagon was not a shoot down order, then what was it?”(8)

And simply sits back and lets likeminded conspiracy theorists pretend that this question is proof of a 9/11 conspiracy. Never mind the fact that all the evidence contradicts them; not only were there jets scrambled on 9/11 with orders to “engage” (rather than shoot down, which is normal procedure for hijacked planes, which until then were used as hostage/ransom devices, not missiles), but any “orders” given by Dick Cheney would indeed have to have been necessary because (and these laws were changed after 9/11), the Executive Branch has to give direct permission for any emergency order of that kind.(8)

The truth is that the 9/11 deniers have no idea what to make of Norman Mineta’s testimony. Even the most stalwart frauds can do little with their supreme ability to distort information other than simply pose vastly extrapolated questions pertaining to minor quibbles about the bumbling questioning of a confused politician. In any other context, this would be put on the shelf of claims along with the triangular Bigfoot footprints and the fuzzy pictures of UFOs/Frisbees. But hey, if you’ve got DVDs to sell…


4. See footnote 213 to chapter one of the Commission Report.
6. . Ironically, this video erroneously states that Mineta’s testimony to the commission has been “deleted” (it has not, see above), and that Dick Cheney said he arrived at the bunker at 9:38, which there is no evidence of.

by John Ray