Document:Brown on Shermer

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Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Us)
by Darin Brown

21 June 2007


I recently bought a copy of the May issue of Scientific American, featuring Peter Duesberg's cancer article PDFsmallicon.gif. I found a column whose placement in the same issue future readers may find especially ironic, if not inadvertently prescient.

Michael Shermer, who authors the "Skeptic" column, describes in "Bush's Mistake and Kennedy's Error" how "self-deception proves itself more powerful than deception". He uses the "war [sic] in Iraq" as his prototypical example of "self-justification, which 'allows people to convince themselves that what they did was the best thing they could have done'". The root of the self-justification is a "cognitive dissonance: 'a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent", according to psychologist Carol Tavris and University of California, Santa Cruz psychology professor Elliot Aronson in their book Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me).

Shermer gives the predictable examples of US foreign policy in Iraq, Vietnam, Cambodia, and South America, as well as more personal examples from finance, romance, and business.

However, his most telling example is wrongly-convicted prison inmates. How do such sentences (potentially almost 30,000 claimed in the past 15 years) come about? According to a legal journalist quoted, "People are lying to you all over the place. Then you develop a theory of the crime, and it leads to what we call tunnel vision. Years later overwhelming evidence comes out that the guy was innocent. And you're sitting there thinking, 'Wait a minute. Either this overwhelming evidence is wrong, or I was wrong – and I couldn't have been wrong, because I'm a good guy.' That's a psychological phenomenon I have seen over and over." [my emphasis]

Curiously, Shermer includes no examples from scientific or medical endeavors, as if the scientific, political, and legal institutions of the world somehow work by mutually exclusive processes. Juries make grand mistakes. Politicians make grand mistakes. Lovers make grand mistakes. But apparently scientists and doctors only make small errors which are quickly found and corrected by the "peer review" process.

Shermer ends with the absurd claim that whenever someone does admit, "I was wrong", they are immediately accepted with open arms and forgiveness.

For the sake of the current HIV apologists, let's hope he's right.

© 2007 by Darin Brown