Kavanaugh, Ford and the elusive nature of ‘truth’

Kavanaugh, Ford and the elusive nature of ‘truth’

College professor Christine Ford has accused Supreme Court nominee Brett KavanaughBrett Michael KavanaughJustices hear sparring over scope of safeguards for minority voters Supreme Court faces landmark challenge on voting rights Will 'Cover-up Cuomo' be marching to 'Jail to the Chief'? MORE of committing sexual assault 35 years ago, more or less, and much attention is now focused on efforts to hear out both sides. But we seem to be forgetting one important fact: We are fooling ourselves to think we can gauge ultimate truth by listening to their stories, or even by hearing what their friends have to say. 

What leads me to say this applies to both parties in the discussion — the unreliable nature of human memory, witnesses and judgment.

First, human memory is inherently fallible. This applies to our memories of recent events and even more so to our memories of the long-ago past. From the research article, “Memory”


“[W]hat gets remembered is reconstructed from the remnants of what was originally stored …what we remember is constructed from whatever remains in memory following any forgetting or interference from new experiences that may have occurred across the interval between storing and retrieving a particular experience. Because the contents of our memories for experiences involve the active manipulation (during encoding), integration with pre-existing information (during consolidation), and reconstruction (during retrieval) of that information, memory is, by definition, fallible at best and unreliable at worst.”

Absent other hard evidence, such as a recording, we cannot assume what we — or others — remember about an event is necessarily an accurate or complete account.

There are more problems in believing that the truth, then, rests with the recollection of witnesses. In this case, Ford claims there was a second boy in the room who took part in the assault. The person she named, as well as Kavanaugh, both say it didn’t happen. But we have learned through our court system that eyewitness testimony is often fickle and shockingly inaccurate. Hal Arkowitz and Scott Lilienfeld explain in their article — “Do the eyes have it?” — that there’s a popular misconception that “human memory works like a video recorder: the mind records events and then, on cue, plays back an exact replica of them.” In fact, they say, memories are reconstructed, rather than played back, every time we remember them: “Even questioning by a lawyer can alter the witness’s testimony because fragments of the memory may unknowingly be combined with information provided by the questioner, leading to inaccurate recall.”

Researchers have even been able to easily create false memories in test subjects, who become convinced that the false memories are real. Memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus conducted a study in which she gave test subjects written accounts of four events; three they had really experienced and one that was made up. After reading the stories, they were asked to write down whatever else they remembered about each incident. One-third of the test subjects said they remembered at least part of the false event as if it had happened. One could presume that such test subjects would even be able to pass a polygraph asking if they had experienced the fabricated event. 

Lastly, there’s the question of our own judgments. We may like to think we can look into someone’s eyes and know whether they’re telling the truth. We ask ourselves, will Kavanaugh shift in his seat or blink too much when he gives his explanation? Will Ford avoid direct eye contact with a questioner or seem uncertain about key details? We may imagine that we can examine posture, demeanor, tone of voice and body language — and know who is being honest. The fact is, history is littered with examples of our collective poor judgments. As humans we suffer from severe cases of overconfidence and bias.

For example, if you think O.J. Simpson murdered his wife, your judgment is contrary to that of the jurors who listened to all of the witnesses and examined all of the evidence, only to decide that he did not. On the other hand, if you think Simpson is innocent, you’re in the minority. Furthermore, not only is our judgment questionable, it’s a moving target. It becomes a sliding scale with many minds changed as time passes. We might change our minds about the very thing we are certain of today, if asked tomorrow.

There seems to be nothing wrong with hearing Ford and Kavanaugh recount events and memories. They cannot both be telling the truth about the alleged incident. But the idea that we can tell which one is, simply by hearing and watching them, is a serious fallacy. Even if one believes this single matter should make or break the Supreme Court candidate, it is worrisome to think the decision hinges on their memories and our judgment of who’s right. 

If Ford and Kavanaugh testify, we will have more information, but we will not necessarily be any closer to divining the truth, even if we fool ourselves into thinking we are.

Sharyl Attkisson (@SharylAttkisson) is an Emmy Award-winning investigative journalist, author of The New York Times bestsellers “The Smear” and “Stonewalled,” and host of Sinclair’s Sunday TV program, “Full Measure.”