Thursday, February 18, 2010

Memoirs and Ivory-billed Woodpeckers: Altered Realities

An article by Daniel Mendelsohn in the January 25, 2010, issue of The New Yorker (pp. 68-74) on the seemingly unrelated topic of memoirs, especially fraudulent ones, may offer some insight into the propensity for some people to make fantastic claims about sightings of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers (Campephilus principalis) that, upon close examination, lack convincing details, and for others to accept them without question.

In the following paragraphs, I highlight a few things about fraudulent memoirs—which reveal something about our human psyches—that seem to have a connection to purported sightings of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers. All of the quotations that follow are taken directly from Mendelsohn's article.

"One of the most interesting defenses of memoirs that turn out to be 'enhanced' or downright invented is that they accurately reflect a reality present not in the world itself, . . ., but in the author's mind." In other words, the mere process of believing something, no matter how outlandish, makes it true.

In defending what was later revealed to be a fraudulent memoir, one author is reported to have said, "It is not the actual reality—it was my reality."

"The seemingly pervasive inability on the part of both authors and readers to distinguish their truth from the objective truth [emphases added] is nothing new in the history of . . . literature." Perhaps the same can be said of some "scientists" and the literature they publish.

"When readers defended . . . [the author of a fraudulent memoir] on the ground that his book, however falsified its 'memories' were, had nonetheless (as he had hoped) provided them with the genuine uplift they were looking for, they were really defending fiction; an uplifting entertainment that can tell truths but cannot tell the truth."

Reacting to the discovery that some of the events in a memoir describing government atrocities against indigenous Guatemalans had not happened in the way related by the author, one sympathetic college professor proclaimed, in a scholarly journal, "Whether her book is true or not, I don't care." So much for objectivity!

Mendelsohn concludes that the public's "susceptibility [to improbable claims] suggests how an immoderate yearning for stories that end satisfyingly [as in, for example, enhancing a belief in the continued existence of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker] . . . makes us vulnerable to frauds and con men peddling pat uplift."

Claims of sightings (or even photographs) by folks like Steve Sheridan and Daniel Rainsong, and others before them, help perpetuate the fiction of the continued existence of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker among people who, for whatever reason, want to believe that this species remains alive. In the minds of these people, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker will forever live among us, however flimsy the evidence.

Disclaimer: The preceding article was originally posted as a Comment on Bill Pulliam's Notes from soggy bottom blog in response to his review of the recent history of fraudulent Ivory-billed Woodpecker claims. It has been slightly modified from the original.


Blogger cyberthrush said...

"Claims of sightings (or even photographs) by folks like Steve Sheridan and Daniel Rainsong, and others before them, help perpetuate the fiction of the continued existence of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker..."

I disagree John; I think exposed hoaxes or insincere claims are one of the most damaging elements to a belief in IBWO's continued existence -- dozens more fencepost-sitters will now, in exasperation, jump ship to the fully skeptical side because of this Rainsong episode. Hoaxes totally take the focus away from where it should be.

February 19, 2010 2:04 PM  
Blogger John L. Trapp said...

I see your point, CT, but must respectively disagree. While these hoaxes may persuade the minority of people still straddling the fence on this issue to jump to the skeptic's side, I think the vast majority of true believers will remain unswayed by this type of dishonesty, and instead continue to hang their hopes on the more persuasive evidence that has been gathered by the likes of investigators at Auburn and Cornell.

February 19, 2010 2:30 PM  

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