Where do you get your facts?

From an opinion piece “Why Movie ‘Facts’ Prevail” in the NYT on February 15th by psychology professor Jeffrey M. Zacks:

This year’s Oscar nominees for best picture include four films based on true stories: “American Sniper” (about the sharpshooter Chris Kyle), “The Imitation Game” (about the British mathematician Alan Turing), “Selma” (about the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965) and “The Theory of Everything” (about the physicist Stephen Hawking).

Each film has been criticized for factual inaccuracy. Doesn’t “Selma” ignore Lyndon B. Johnson’s dedication to black voting rights? Doesn’t “The Imitation Game” misrepresent the nature of Turing’s work, just as “The Theory of Everything” does Mr. Hawking’s? Doesn’t “American Sniper” sanitize the military conflicts it purports to depict?

You might think: Does it really matter? Can’t we keep the film world separate from the real world?

Unfortunately, the answer is no. Studies show that if you watch a film — even one concerning historical events about which you are informed — your beliefs may be reshaped by “facts” that are not factual.

Zacks goes on to explain that the culprit is what is sometimes called “source amnesia”:

In one study, published in the journal Psychological Science in 2009, a team of researchers had college students read historical essays and then watch clips from historical movies containing information that was inaccurate and inconsistent with the essays. Despite being warned that the movies might contain factual distortions, the students produced about a third of the fake facts from the movies on a subsequent test.

… Why do we have such a hard time sorting film “facts” from real facts? One suggestion is that our minds are well equipped to remember things that we see or hear — but not to remember the source of those memories.

So the films can interfere with prior knowledge, thanks to source amnesia. But there are other possible contributions to the power of those films. In particular, they tell stories, not just provide facts, and these stories are simple and dramatic. People love stories, especially satisfying ones.

A while back on this blog I posted about etymologies, noting that people were often attracted to false etymologies over accurate ones because the false ones came with better stories. So on 4/4/09 I posted about the term foamer ‘intense railfan’, standardly said to derive from foaming at the mouth with enthusiasm, though a retired locomotive engineer offered an elaborate, detailed origin story involving foam gathering along a stretch of a specific river. I said then:

the story is detailed — with references to specific times, places, and practices — and also unreferenced. Instantly, scholars of word and phrase origins smell a rat. The story isn’t necessarily wrong — there are genuine origin accounts that are similarly specific (though there’s some verification for them) — but this one is probably bogus, probably a bit of etymythology.

The fact is, ordinary people (who are not scholars of word and phrase origins) tend to think that

A good story is better than the truth.

I referred to this attraction to good stories as narratophilia. In a later posting:

Stories — especially complex ones with specific persons mentioned and other specific details provided — are satisfying. People love stories, as I said in my earlier foamer posting (where I called this love of stories narratophilia), and so they concoct etymythological narratives.

Not only do people prefer stories, they prefer satisfying stories: straightforward and uncomplex, but detailed and full of human interest, and conforming to our expectations about human nature and the motivations for actions. Factual accounts of events are rarely this satisfying.

Getting back to the power of films, narratophilia gives an advantage to these over factual accounts. On top of this, there is almost surely a preference for the audio-visual, for stories told in plays, operas, movies, or television, rather than in print. What we think we know about Richard III almost surely comes from Shakespeare (with his Tudor biases); what we think we know about Mozart’s life almost surely is colored by the film Amadeus; and so on.

All this, and then source amnesia too. So our picture of Alan Turing will come mostly from The Imitation Game and not from, say, Andrew Hodges’ biography.

One Response to “Where do you get your facts?”

  1. Julian Lander Says:

    And a film provides visual reinforcement to the narrative, which may be more effective than a word-only (heard or read) narrative. I came to Shakespeare’s Richard III late, so my vision of him is different, but that’s just personal experience.

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