Friday, February 20, 2015

Podcast of the Week (2/15-2/21, 2015) You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney

The podcast You Are Not So Smart, by author David McRaney addresses heuristics, congitive biases, neuroscience, and behavioral economics. I have not read McRaney's books (yet) but I think he does a good job of covering those I have read on those topics.

This episode was inspired by Brian Williams' "misremembering" events from the Iraq war. It features interviews with Dan Simon and Julia Shaw. Shaw discusses an experiment in which she implanted false memories into her college students' brains. Shaw - (quoting Elizabeth Loftus) "100% of our memories are false," meaning they contain falsehoods of varying degree. Brian Williams essentially "played telephone with himself" - our memory of events is shown to change over time as we tell stories about it, get feedback from others, and deal with emotions attached to the memory.

Shaw describes the method by which she "implanted" false memories in college students, making them think they'd committed felonies when they were teenagers. This reminded me of an experiment I heard a professor do after 9/11, where he had students write down where they were immediately after the event. Just 5-10 years later he did a survey and many of them had a different memory of where they were when it happened.

You might ask "what does this have to do with me?" Well, ponder the statement above that 100% of your memories contain falsehood. What is it that you remember vividly, like it happened yesterday? It probably didn't happen like that. This has implications for our perceptions of others, for our legal system (if you listened to Serial you got a great example), and even the Gospel. Forensic scientist- turned pastor/author J. Warner Wallace (Cold-Case Christianity) gives his view as a former detective in his books and on his website.

Witnesses are always separated as quickly as possible to get differing versions. This is to avoid collusion and confusion, you might misremember something because of a friend who says he saw it
differently. He writes on his website that
"When people have the opportunity to align their statements, yet still refuse to do so, I know I am getting the nuanced observations I need to properly investigate the case. The Gospel authors (and the early Church) certainly had the opportunity to eliminate alleged contradictions, but they refused to do so. As a result, we can have even more confidence in the reliability of these accounts. They display the level of variation I would expect to see if they were true, reliable eyewitness descriptions." 

Continuing elsewhere:
"Even though I accept and affirm the inerrancy of Scripture, inerrancy is not required of reliable eyewitnesses. In fact, I’ve never had a completely inerrant eyewitness in all my years as a homicide detective. In addition, I’ve never had a case where two witnesses have ever agreed completely on the details of the crime. Eyewitness reliability isn’t dependent upon perfection..."

Wallace points out that the question the interviewees were presented with matters. How many angels, for example? Okay, so Wallace says he never met two eyewitnesses that exactly lined up. Yet, we cannot be satisfied with "reliable witnesses," as we have to keep with "jot and tittle" inerrancy in the Gospel accounts. How do we do that?  Wallace concludes:

"Let me be clear about something here: after examining the gospel accounts, I don’t believe that they contain any true contradictions or factual errors. I do, believe however, that they contain scribal variants, and these variants are already identified on the pages of scripture by the publishers of our modern translations. While I do believe in the inerrancy of the original text of the New Testament, I entered my examination of the gospels with a very different standard; I didn’t demand that the witnesses be inerrant, just reliable. A witness can be mistaken about some small detail, yet considered reliable related to his or her larger claims. Although it is clear that the New Testament we possess today contains “variants” that we have accurately identified by comparing over 24,000 manuscripts fragments and larger documents, this has no bearing on whether or not they are reliable. These variants may be an excuse for some to lazily dismiss the claims of scripture, but good investigators don’t have the luxury of being lazy. Instead, it’s our duty to separate the artifacts from the evidence so we can solve the case and determine what really happened at the crime scene. Similar diligence is needed if we are ever going to fairly assess the claims of Christianity."
You can determine for yourself if you're satisfied with Warner's explanation (and Norman Geisler's, who Warner quotes) of inerrancy. He and others note that there may be paradoxes but not contradictions, and if there were two angels then there also had to have been one angel, etc.

Listen, read, learn, enjoy.

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