In November 1967 I was in 10th grade. My world was small, just the neighborhood where I lived, the shopping center nearby, and my school across the freeway. I ran across the issue of Time magazine (above), featuring a demonstration of 100,000 people, about half of whom had marched from the Lincoln Memorial to the Pentagon on the 21st of October. For me, this march was an eye-opener. I figured that there must be something important for that many people to go against the dominant narrative.
The march also made an impression on then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who was in the Pentagon at the time. As McNamara recounted in the Errol Morris film, The Fog of War, “The Pentagon is a very, very difficult building to defend. We placed troops carrying rifles around it — U.S. Marshals in front of the soldiers. But I told the President, ‘Not a rifle would be loaded without my personal permission.’ And I wasn't going to grant it.”
I decided to start a “Current Events” club at my HS. I was moved to find out more about the Vietnam war, but I didn’t have any sources of information other than Time. I brought issues of the magazine in to the club and we went through them. I started doing research on the war in the newspaper. This opened my mind further and I started to go to the little local library at the shopping center. My ambition was to read everything in the library. I had no idea how tiny was the sampling of knowledge contained there. When I found out the Air Force Base had a library I started going there. I read the official history of Marine Corps aviation in the battle of Guadalcanal in 1942 and the official history of the US Army in WWII. When I started driving I went to the State Library in Sacramento and found an amazing wellspring of WWII research: Verband und Truppen der deutschen Wehrmacht und Waffen-SS im Zweiten Weltkrieg, 1939-45.
By that time, the protests against the Vietnam War went nation-wide, with a moratorium in October and November that nearly ignited revolution. I organized a walk-out against our Civics Class, to protest when we got to the chapter called, “The American Empire.” Nothing like that had happened in my HS before. We didn’t think that America should have an empire. This was not a good reason for our older friends to be shipped over to Vietnam to be killed. Even now when the US has 750 military bases in over 80 countries across the globe, my opinion has not changed. When I was 19, I started “Conflict” magazine with Dana Lombardy. The magazine eventually published 8 issues, but after the second issue I was offered a job with SPI in New York City. There I really learned my craft, working with real historians who taught me to question everything I read, and to stack up one account against others. You learned not to trust a single source, but only considered a fact as confirmed if it was reported from at least two independent sources, and hopefully more. One pitfall in this area is when you find a second source, you need to make sure it doesn’t refer back to the first source. Otherwise, it doesn’t count. If you do find a second source, and it doesn’t agree with the first account, then you need to put the two accounts side by side and see where they agree and where they diverge. Do not make a snap judgement and throw either of them away, yet. By careful reading, they might not really be in disagreement, but simply reporting different aspects of the same event. Avoiding your first impressions, try to see if there is a way that both accounts could be true.
In the 1960’s we had in the USA a fairly independent media, although even in those days the CIA was giving money to magazines like Time. Claire Booth Luce was on the CIA payroll, and so was Gloria Steinem, the founder of Ms. magazine. In 1977 over 400 journalists were enrolled in the program, called Operation Mockingbird. By 1983 there were still 50 independent media companies in the US. Today, after four decades of media consolidation, six global corporations own 95% of all the media outlets, and they are coordinated to produce one official narrative: GE, News Corp, Disney, Viacom, Time Warner, and CBS. They write what they are told to write. This situation was revealed by Mark Crispin Miller, professor of Media Studies at NYU.
In the 1980’s the Reagan administration wanted to stop the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, who had won national elections, and the CIA was illegally shipping arms to rebels in that country (the Iran-Contra scandal, Ollie North.) Every day I read the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Village Voice, The Nation, and several other papers, and I discovered how the same story was slanted differently in each publication. The bias of the newspapers was immediately obvious by setting accounts next to each other. There was an “official” story and then there were other competing versions. Which one was “true” was not immediately obvious, but it was clear that the major newspapers had an investment in the official line of government propaganda, to keep the masses in line and avoid a repeat of the waves of protest seen in the 1960’s. Everything about the 60’s revolution was reviled in the major media, and that revolution was eventually excised from history.
This is nothing new. For centuries you have had the “official” story and insurgent narratives. In the middle ages, the main authority was the Church, and if you departed from Church dogma you could be killed. Galileo was forced to recant his statement that the earth revolves around the sun. Giordano Bruno was burned as a heretic.
Things haven’t changed in essence. If we had to rely entirely upon those six media companies we would be in the same situation as the “heretics.” The most available tool we have to overcome the falsification of history is the internet. Obviously the internet can be used as a source for good or it can be abused. But we still have the same rules that researchers have always had, which means avoiding the tendency toward bias and prejudice, to keep our minds and hearts open to the truth.
Researchers have to watch out for bias. Bias is not just in our sources but in ourselves, and it can be difficult to ferret it out.
Common Cognitive Biases:
- Fundamental Attribution Error: We judge others on their personality or fundamental character, but we judge ourselves on the situation.
- In-Group Favoritism: We favor people who are in our in-group as opposed to an out-group.
- Bandwagon Effect: Ideas and beliefs grow as more people adopt them.
- Groupthink: Due to a desire for conformity and harmony in the group, we make irrational decisions, often to minimize conflict.
- Halo Effect: If you see a person as having a positive trait, that positive impression will spill over into an overall impression. (This also works for negative traits.)
- False Consensus: We believe more people agree with us than is actually the case.
- Curse of Knowledge: Once we know something, we assume everyone else knows it, too.
- Spotlight Effect: We overestimate how much people are paying attention to our behavior and appearance.
- Availability Heuristic: We rely on immediate examples that come to mind while making judgments.
- Just-World Hypothesis: We tend to believe the world is just; therefore, we assume acts of injustice are deserved.
- Naïve Realism: We believe that we observe objective reality and that other people are irrational, uninformed, or biased.
- Naïve Cynicism: We believe that we observe objective reality and that other people have a higher egocentric bias than they actually do in their intentions/actions.
- Dunning-Kruger Effect: The less you know, the more confident you are. The more you know, the less confident you are.
- Anchoring: We rely heavily on the first piece of information introduced.
- Automation Bias: We rely on automated systems, sometimes trusting too much in the automated “correction” of factually correct information.
- Google Effect (aka Digital Amnesia): We tend to forget information that’s easily looked up in search engines.
- Reactance: We do the opposite of what we’re told, especially when we perceive threats to personal freedoms.
- Confirmation Bias: We tend to find and remember information that confirms our perceptions.
- Backfire Effect: Disproving evidence sometimes has the unwarranted effect of confirming our beliefs.
- Third-Person Effect: We believe that others are more affected by mass media consumption than we ourselves are.
- Belief Bias: We judge an argument’s strength not by how strongly it supports the conclusion but how plausible the conclusion is in our own minds.
- Availability Cascade: Tied to our need for social acceptance, collective beliefs gain more plausibility through public repetition.
- Declinism: We tent to romanticize the past and view the future negatively, believing that societies/institutions are by and large in decline.
- Sunk Cost Fallacy: We invest more in things that have cost us something rather than altering our investments, even if we face negative outcomes.
- Gambler’s Fallacy: We think future possibilities are affected by past events.
- Framing Effect: We often draw different conclusions from the same information depending on how it’s presented.
- Stereotyping: We adopt generalized beliefs that members of a group will have certain characteristics, despite lacking information about the individual.
- Outgroup Homogeneity Bias: We perceive out-group members as homogeneous and our own in-groups as more diverse.
- Authority Bias: We trust and are more often influenced by the opinions of authority figures.
- Law of Triviality: We give disproportionate weight to trivial issues, while avoiding more complex issues.
- IKEA Effect: We place higher value on things we have invested time and/or effort in.
- False Memory: We mistake imagination for real memories.
- Cryptamnesia: We mistake real memories for imagination.
- Clustering Illusion: We find patterns and “clusters” in random data.
- Pessimism Bias: We sometimes overestimate the likelihood of bad outcomes.
- Optimism Bias: We sometimes are over-optimistic about good outcomes.
- Blind Spot Bias: We don’t think we have bias, and we see it in others more than ourselves.