It’s Not Time to Free Brian Williams Just Yet: A Comment on Episode 4 of Season 3 of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Revisionist History”

by Jeffrey A. Vernon, DO

I’m a Malcolm Gladwell fan. I’m also a psychiatrist with a particular interest in neuroscience. It was, therefore, with great anticipation I began listening to the past two episodes of Malcolm Gladwell’s famed podcast, “Revisionist History.” Entitled, respectively, “A Polite Word for Liar” and “Free Brian Williams,” episodes 3 and 4 of the podcast’s third season were supposed to explore the fallacy of believing in our brains as perfect, video camera-precise recording devices. They’re not. I’m well-familiar with the literature that demonstrates this. The literature that shows our memories are more fluid and changeable with time than we’d like to believe; are colored by our emotions both at the time of the event and the time of recall; and often contain details that never happened but, rather, were “filled in” at a later point to “complete” the memory by our poor, overworked brains which simply don’t have the attention span or processing power to constantly take in and record the entirety of life going on around them — even for events fraught with personal or cultural emotional significance (the latter of which Mr. Gladwell discusses in episode 4 under the concept of “flashbulb” events). Despite this, in his “Free Brian Williams” episode, Mr. Gladwell makes at least two large errors in logic and reasoning.

The first is to equate the possibility of a memory error having occurred with the certainty of a memory error having occurred. He seems angered that everyone “assumed” Brian Williams lied, without ever examining the possibility critically himself. Indeed, quite curiously his last two episodes of “Revisionist History” ultimately amount to little more than an hour-plus, strident defense of Brian Williams, beginning not with a neutral point-of-view but, rather, with the clear opinion that Mr. Williams didn’t lie and then trying to make an argument from that base. To bolster this point, Mr. Gladwell mentions studies showing how our memory for detail degrades over time, even for “flashbulb” events, and has an expert (a memory researcher) provide commentary stating his opinion that Brian Williams simply had a lapse in memory (rather than lied) and that it was not only his view but also “the view of most of the people in the memory field that I know of.” There’s a big problem here (and I mean beyond the researcher speaking for the entirety of his field on a non-scientific, pop culture matter).

Mr. Gladwell seems to be falling prey to what is sometimes called the expert opinion fallacy, also known as “argument from authority” or “appeal to authority.” Experts are terrific at summarizing the research data in their field but, as studies show, this does not translate into an ability to create valid or reliable real-world arguments about novel situations that relate tangentially to the subject matter studied in their field to which said research may — or, more commonly — may not apply. Why? Studies show that experts are prone to the exact same cognitive biases as the rest of us (and may be even more prone to confirmation bias than the average person). Additionally, researchers are known to “fall in love,” so to speak, with their ideas, which can slowly lead to overgeneralization and the broadening of the scope of a problem beyond its true boundaries. (This problem is not at all limited to researchers on human memory but seems to plague most academic fields; issues in other academic fields are beyond the scope of this commentary, however.) “Human memory is not as reliable as we think,” becomes, step-by-step, something more like, “Human memory is completely unreliable.” Of course, this is demonstrably false. Were it true, we could not survive as living organisms, let alone function to the high degree we generally do. Not only would we be unable to carry out basic activities of daily living, but we would be unable to form highly complex social networks and organizational structures as we do, or to engage in extremely complicated and specialized tasks in our careers. Indeed, it is a testament to the power and general accuracy and reliability of our memory that we go about our daily lives without significant hindrances caused by errors of memory, as would be expected were it truly as unreliable as this episode of “Revisionist History” (and some revisionist memory researchers) would have us believe. (And let’s not even get into the extreme moral implications of living in a world where people truly believed we could never be certain someone was lying — a whole non-fiction book or even dystopian novel could be written on that topic.)

Indeed, I suspect most of us go about our daily lives with only insignificant, unnoticed glitches in our memory. Few of us are having daily, unexpected surprises caused by major memory problems such as not remembering how we ended up at a certain location; getting lost when walking or driving in familiar areas; or suddenly not recognizing a friend, family member, or colleague whom we see regularly. There is a term for people with memory difficulties of such a significant degree: demented. Without delving into the endless variety of types of dementia (which consist of both irreversible and potentially reversible causes), it is worth noting that most people (meaning even non-mental health professionals) seem to have at least some idea in their head of how large a memory lapse can be before straying into the uncomfortably abnormal. Forget where you put your keys once-in-a-while? Probably not a problem. Forget who your son or daughter is even one time? Probably a problem. Indeed, despite the attempts of Mr. Gladwell’s expert to normalize any degree of memory lapse, there actually is a scientific limit to the degree to which an inaccuracy in memory can still be considered normal. And this leads right into Mr. Gladwell’s second big error in argument on his podcast this week.

During this week’s podcast, Mr. Gladwell presents several false equivalencies. He tries to convince us that Brian Williams simply “forgot” the tiny little detail that his helicopter was never actually shot down (and for some reason omits the other “embellishments” of Mr. Williams over the course of his career that later came to light) by comparing it to studies showing that people often think they know what they were doing during or right after they heard the news of 9/11 — but they are quite often mistaken. However, there is a world of difference between forgetting mundane details like if you were already watching TV, doing laundry, or making a grilled cheese sandwich when you heard the news that the Twin Towers had come down and forgetting that the actual event itself occurred. There’s an even larger difference between forgetting such minute details and believing you were actually in the Twin Towers (or in an adjacent tower) when the attacks happened when, in reality, you weren’t. This latter scenario would be much more analogous to Mr. Williams’ statements. If Mr. Williams had forgotten where in the helicopter he was sitting or was off on the date of the event by a bit, well, then, those would be much more similar in scope of error to the tiny details Mr. Gladwell points out that studies show we forget after major events over time. But trying to analogize the recall of small, peripheral details on the one hand with the remembrance of the actual central event that occurred on the other simply doesn’t work. There is a term in psychiatry for the true fabrication of memories: confabulation. It’s a sign of dementia. Do I believe Mr. Williams was or is demented? Of course not. There’s a far simpler explanation: he was lying.

About the Author: Jeffrey A. Vernon, DO is a New York City-based psychiatrist with an interest in treatment-resistant mental illness. He has published research on schizophrenia and is a Malcolm Gladwell fan who was very disappointed in Mr. Gladwell’s most recent episode of “Revisionist History.” He can be reached at drjeffreyvernon@gmail.com.