A situation was engineered by the National Geographic Channel on the fallibility of eyewitness memories. A thief escaped with a stolen bag from a lady amidst a crowd watching a projected film. The eyewitnesses were taken to the police station for questioning, which involved a police lineup and a formal written statement. A little extra scenario was added; the eyewitnesses were told to discuss with a police officer everything they saw concerning the incident. Unknown to them two people were planted among them to cause distortion by giving false pieces of evidence. In such a salient way, the other eyewitnesses totally agreed that they also noticed these false attributes which by the way never took place.
Two weeks later, the eyewitnesses were asked to write another statement. 75% of the eyewitnesses wrote a totally different version of the incident in contrast with their first statement. The interesting thing was that when they were shown the earlier written statement, some claimed to not believe they had written it. A person actually said he must have been in shock then, but has now had time to cool off. What this shows us is that wrongness knows no bounds; that there is no form of knowledge, however impregnable or incontestable it may seem, that cannot under certain circumstances, fail us.
A popular misconception on how the human memory is like a video recorder: the mind records an event and then on cue, plays back an exact replica of them. On the contrary, it has been found that memories are reconstructed rather than just played back each time we recall them. Psychologist Elizabeth Loftus of the University of California, Irvine says “the act of remembering is more akin to putting puzzle pieces together than retrieving a video recording”.
This fallibility of knowledge is gravely disappointing because we really, really love to know things. We know or think we know things and we enjoy the feeling of mastery and confidence our knowledge gives us. The feeling of knowing; it fills us with the conviction of rightness whether we are right or not. (…This is right ‘cause I can feel it in my bones) is not a very good way to gauge the accuracy of our knowledge.
An understanding could be gotten from an enduring suggestion made by Plato who defined knowledge as “justified true belief” which literally means that if you could give a good and strong explanation for why this is true, then it’s true. You might be wrong, but you are not alone. None of us capture our memories in perfect recorded detail, but almost all of us believe in them with blinding convictions. How can we square this feeling of rightness with the real possibility that we are wrong?
Here is the twist. Unfortunately, we have seen that recognizing the limit of our knowledge is extremely difficult. The option of checking our beliefs to figure out if they are justified and true are controversial and an impractical way to live through life. On the other hand, relying on the feeling of knowing and trusting inner certainty leads us too easily into error. We must also accept that we can’t ascertain in advance which of the things we know that will turn out not to be knowledge after all. In other words, we have no sound method of knowing what we know – which strictly speaking, we don’t know much of anything.
The idea of knowledge and the idea of error are fundamentally incompatible. When we claim to know something, we are essentially saying that we can’t be wrong. If we want to contend with the possibility that we could be wrong, then the idea of knowledge won’t serve us; we need to embrace the idea of belief instead. In that view, knowledge is, you will recall, belief plus evidence plus all the conditions the philosophers put on it, and all the faith that we ourselves put in it.
Belief is, I will argue, the atomic unit of our intelligence. The thing that differentiates us from machines, and that lets us navigate the world as deftly as we do. But it is also true that belief is also the atomic unit of error. Whether we wrongly think we can see or wrongly remember what we did yesterday, whether we are mistaken about the highest goal scorer of the premier league, what we are ultimately wrong about is always a belief. Kathryn Schulz put a cap on the head when she said: “If we want to understand how we err, we need to look at how we believe”.