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Rumor, Belief, and Magic - 06/27/09

A simple human experiment was invented by a German psychologist over a century ago. My first encounter with it was in a military science class in undergraduate school (I was ROTC).

The purpose of the experiment is to show how information changes as a story or set of "facts" passes from person-to-person. Here's how it works: A person is read a short story. He tells that story to a second person. The second person tells the story to a third. The third to a fourth and so on. The last person then tells his version out loud and it is compared to the original. In every case, the last telling is different from the original story, and sometimes very different.

The experiment also shows how rumors generate, and enlarge, and the imperfections of communication. I believe it was Ortega y Gasset who wrote about the latter, arguing that communication is always imperfect. So: I write what I mean, and mean what I write. Why don't you, the reader, get it? Because I write what I mean, but you read what you think I mean; that is, you read what I've written in the context of your own understanding and experience. There can be and probably are significant variations between my meaning and yours, so what you think I meant can be different from what I intended to mean.

Thus, I or anyone can generate a rumor (accidentally or intentionally) which may over time become "fact" in the minds of those who hear the latest version of it.

-At a commission meeting I hear Commissioner Ganz make a comment that not enough backup material is included in the commissioners' packets.

-I tell Marge, I think Bill is mad at Mahaney because he doesn't provide the commissioners with enough background information.

-Marge tells Barb, Jeff says Bill is angry with Mike.

-Barb tells Pam, Jeff says Bill doesn't like Mike.

-Pam tells Tom, Jeff says Bill isn't satisfied with Mike.

-Tom gets back to me and says, I understand you think Bill wants the fire Mike.

This is how "disinformation" works too. Rumors or falsehoods are planted, sometimes in regular news stories. Eventually, if repeated enough, they become "fact" with some people. The propagandists know how the process works and exploit it to create operating mythologies in which the public believes. Here's a recent local example: "Everybody" believes that the parking lot at the Cove is packed day-in and day-out. "You can't ever find a parking spot" is the mantra of this belief. Yet, some people went down to the Cove every day and took pictures to document what they saw. The pictures showed there's almost always plenty of available parking. Why do so many people believe the opposite? I think it's because the "fact" that the parking lot is full most of the time has been said so many times, people see it as truth. It's a trick.

Likewise, local news stories about the projected Cove improvements focused on the people who don't want the project to go forward. But persons who attended the meetings and workshops know that most merchants and property owners at the Cove support the improvements. People who did not attend these meetings might believe most oppose the project if the sole source of their information is the local news coverage. Not by lying, exactly, but by omitting relevant information, the reporter is able to create an "illusion" as to what the consensus is; and, in effect, to trick the minds of readers into believing something false is true, without even stating the falsehood.

This, in fact, happens all the time, even in the regular media.

Scientists are studying stage magic to see how it works -- not the exact mechanics, but why people believe what they see.

When I was 10 or 11 years old, my parents took me to see Harry Blackstone, Sr., one of the most famous stage magicians of that era. The trick that I remember most was the "Vanishing Bird Cage." In that routine Blackstone held a red bird cage with a small bird in it at about the level where little hands could reach it. He invited kids from the audience to come up on the stage and put their hands on the cage. And, it suddenly vanished, bird and all, into thin air.

All of us have seen magic tricks where elephants, train cars, and even the Statue of Liberty are seemingly made to disappear. Now the rational mind knows perfectly well, the bird cage didn't just vanish. But the perception is that it did, and most people are awed by the mystery of how the magician did it.

In a modern experiment, a magician sits in front of an audience and makes an object disappear. Every person in the audience believes it disappeared before their eyes.

A camera, recording the trick from a different angle, showed clearly how the magician made the object disappear. But not a single person in the live audience saw it. People watching the video, however, can't believe the audience didn't see what the magician did, it's that obvious. Somehow, the magician, or illusionist, is able to trick the mind of viewers so that they believe what the rational mind knows can't happen, happened.

In a way, this is what the propagandist or rumormonger does also. He's an illusionist who tricks the mind by using the prejudices, ignorance, gullibilities, and intellectual laziness of his readers or listeners to make them believe a falsehood or mere speculation is fact. He knows that some people can be convinced of almost anything if the story is feasible. He knows that information will be reinterpreted and magnified as it is passed along. He may successfully create a whole mythology from a falsehood which people believe and from which may emerge important public policy decisions.

I won't go into it too deeply now, but I think that similar processes are at work in political correctness. We think with words and symbols and what we think those words and symbols mean. By banning certain words, or by redefining them, we alter the way people think about certain issues.