Whither Memory & History?

Any assessment of the accuracy of memory requires some record of the to-be-remembered events themselves. One way to get those records is to obtain immediate first-hand accounts of experiences that are likely to give rise to vivid recollections later. On the morning after the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, it occurred to me that shock of hearing about this disaster might be just such an experience for many Americans. With this in mind I asked a number of Emory undergraduates to make written records of how they had heard the news on the previous day. Three years later, we compared their still vivid recollections of that experience with those records. I expect to find errors – at least minor ones… As you will see, the actual results far exceeded my expectations.

Neisser, Ulric, and Nicole Harsch. “Phantom Flashbulbs.” In Memory observed: Remembering in Natural Contexts. New York: Worth Publishers, 2000

Re-read that. Less than ten percent of those surveyed by Neissar and Harsch had recollections that still matched their own written records, but what’s scary is the confidence each had that their memory was correct! Some even maintained that their current recollection was correct despite being shown their original written record. If knowledge from memory can degrade this much within a span of just three years, what does this indicate about the fidelity of historical ‘knowledge’ from centuries ago?

Even if an attempt were made by the historian to present an unbiased description of the times, fidelity to the original message degrades over time as noise creeps into the information channel. You may be familiar with the Telephone Game, where players line up and the person at the beginning whispers a message to the next in line, which is then passed on from one player to the next until the last person in the line shouts out the phrase. The fun of the game is that the original message, by the time it gets to the last person, will have mutated beyond recognition. A popular story is how a World War I message from the front started out as “Send reinforcements, we’re going to advance” and became “Send three and four pence, we’re going to a dance” by the time it reached Headquarters.

They implications can be daunting. If the historical narrative we have is not reliable, then we lose some of the basis for our inductive reasoning based upon explicit knowledge. Further, most people are not too particular about their epistemology (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Why_Most_Published_Research_Findings_Are_False). Many people hold very strong beliefs that they truly know very little about (and conversely, there are many that perhaps discount their first-hand knowledge in deference to the prevailing paradigm). As Stanley Milgram’s study demonstrated, authority can easily seduce and manipulate people by controlling their perceptions and shaping their models of reality. So, is history simply the surviving rhetoric of propaganda of the powerful or, at most, the story of the powerful as seen by the historian?

History, whether of oral or written, is subject to this same sort of entropy. It can be troubling to think about the reliability (or unreliability) of the second-hand information that we call history. How do we know whether something really happened or not? We really do not. We can only speculate about what must have happened given corroborating evidence from various streams of study, such as archeology, linguistics, genetics, and geology. If we maintain anything other than a radical agnosticism about the ‘events’ of history, the odds are that we are in error. The best we can do with regards to second-hand or explicit knowledge is archeology or source documents and the worst, oral history.

Adding to the already murky waters of history is the secrecy of Black Chambers. David Kahn, who was granted unprecedented access to governmental records, including those of the ultra-secret National Security Agency (NSA), describes in his book The Codebreakers (Kahn, David. The Codebreakers: The Comprehensive History of Secret Communication from Ancient Times to the Internet. New York: Scribner, 1967) how aristocracies developed special offices called Black Chambers to decipher intercepted coded messages from other nations. Today, the CIA, the NSA, MI6, Mossad, and the like are the Black Chambers, and they are a testament to the power of words and symbols to shape history—what would history be like if the many coded messages that were intercepted were not and vice versa? Read Thomas B. Allen’s book Declassified: 50 Top-Secret Documents That Changed History (Allen, Thomas B. Declassified: 50 Top-Secret Documents That Changed History. National Geographic, 2008), and you cannot help but wonder what secret epic events have not made it into the public record of history? How would knowledge of these events change our beliefs and expectations? Despite the fact that these Black Chambers perform an important function in our culture, Roman poet Juvenal’s question remains, ‘who will police the police?’

Former President Harry S. Truman’s revelations about the American CIA may further strengthen this question.

I think it was a mistake. And if I’d known what was going to happen, I never would have done it. I needed…the President needed at that time a central organization that would bring all the various intelligence reports we were getting in those days, and there must have been a dozen of them, maybe more, bring them all into one organization so that the President would get one report on what was going on in various parts of the world.

Now that made sense, and that’s why I went ahead and set up what they called the Central Intelligence Agency.

But it got out of hand. The fella…the one that was in the White House after me, never paid any attention to it, and it got out of hand. Why, they’ve got an organization over there in Virginia now that is practically the equal of the Pentagon in many ways and I think I’ve told you, one Pentagon is one too many.

Now, as nearly as I can make out, those fellows in the CIA don’t just report on wars and the like, they go out and make their own, and there’s nobody to keep track of what they’re up to. They spend billions of dollars on stirring up trouble so they’ll have something to report on. They’ve become…it’s become a government all of its own and all secret. They don’t have to account to anybody.

That’s a very dangerous thing in a democratic society, and it’s got to be put a stop to. The people have got a right to know what those birds are up to. And if I was back in the White House, people would know. You see, the way a free government works, there’s got be a housecleaning every now and again, and I don’t care what branch of the government is involved.

Somebody has to keep an eye on things…And when you can’t do any housecleaning because everything that goes on is a damn secret, why, then we’re on our way to something the Founding Fathers didn’t have in mind. Secrecy and a free, democratic government don’t mix.

You have got to keep an eye on the military at all times, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s the birds in the Pentagon or the birds in the CIA.

Miller, Merle. Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman . 1973

While history’s several secrets make historical hand-me-downs suspect, common perceptions of current events and personalities are hardly true to reality. Historical knowledge, a case of epistemological hand-me-downs, is tainted not only by unintentional signal degradation but also by deliberate secrecy and distortion. Human history, without the benefit of strong corroborating evidence and artifacts amounts to little more than story telling or narrative.