Tag Archives: brain function

Garbage In, Garbage Out

At one time or another, those of us who teach despair of the whole educational enterprise. We entertain the dark suspicion that some people simply can’t make use of information–that their ability to reason is faulty, that they are unable to consider and evaluate evidence to reach sound conclusions.

Happily, I’m wrong.  At least, that’s the conclusion reached by researchers at Princeton,  When a wrong choice is made, the researchers found that it might be the information rather than the brain’s decision-making process that is to blame.

The results of the study were reported in Science Daily, and the experiment involved very simple types of information; nevertheless, if the conclusions are replicated, the importance of good education and accurate journalism increases.

If human decision-making depends upon the quality of the information available, those of us in the information-providing business have an ethical obligation to provide information that is sound and verified. In public school classrooms, that means teaching science in science class,not religion. It means teaching American and constitutional history in much more depth. It means introducing students to the world beyond America’s borders–the world they will increasingly interact with, and about which they will need solid information.

As important as education is, the information we are fed daily is even more consequential. In a country that celebrates free expression, we can’t mandate truth in journalism–and even a cursory trip around the internet will demonstrate how much  unreliable and delusional “information” is out there. In the age of the internet, it’s increasingly difficult to separate fact from opinion and both from outright propaganda. When we relied upon daily newspapers and the evening news–the “legacy” media–we missed a lot, but those journalists generally followed an ethical code that required independent verification of information before it was reported. In today’s news environment, with the 24-hour “news hole,” speed often trumps accuracy even for the more responsible media–and there are more and more irresponsible media outlets competing for our attention.

We can’t make good decisions if we don’t have trustworthy information.

The Princeton study validates a couple of old sayings: “it ain’t what you don’t know that hurts you; it’s what you know that just ain’t so.”   And the even pithier, “garbage in, garbage out.”

Jean-Luc Was Right

I admit to being a shameless fan of Star Trek, the Next Generation. (Okay–also Deep Space Nine and Voyager..) The series was at its best when it tackled civil liberties issues, and one example that I’ve always remembered was a two-part story about Captain Picard’s capture–and torture–by the Cardassians. Pickard resisted the pain and humiliation as the hero of a show should. Each time the interrogator began a “session,” he would show four lights and ask Picard how many he saw. The “correct” answer was five. At the very end, when his interrogator was once again demanding that Pickard tell him how many lights there were, our hero was rescued. Later, however, as he recounted the experience to the ship’s counselor, he told her that he was about to tell his tormentor he saw five, because by that time he actually DID see five!

Turns out that science supports art in this case.

Wired magazine has an article about a new paper by Shane O’Mara in Trends in Cognitive Sciences that examines the neuroscience of using things like stress positions and abuse to get accurate information out of detainees. He bluntly calls the belief that abuse and torture are effective a form of folk neuroscience that does not conform to what we know about how the brain works.

O’Mara derides the belief that extreme stress produces reliable memory as “folk neurobiology” that “is utterly unsupported by scientific evidence.” The hippocampus and prefrontal cortex — the brain’s centers of memory processing, storage and retrieval — are profoundly altered by stress hormones. Keep the stress up long enough, and it will “result in compromised cognitive function and even tissue loss,” warping the minds that interrogators want to read.

What’s more, tortured suspects might not even realize when they’re lying. Frontal lobe damage can produce false memories: As torture is maintained for weeks or months or years, suspects may incorporate their captors’ allegations into their own version of reality.”

So–even leaving issues of humanity and morality aside, science shows us that torture does not work. It isn’t a question of ends justifying the means–which is an approach specifically rejected by our Bill of Rights in any event. Assuming that “the ends” are the acquisition of reliable data, the means don’t get us there.

Tell me again why Dick Cheney believes we should torture people?