Plasticity of Memory, Principles of Charity, and Pugilistic Punditry
The New York Times ran a piece the day before yesterday, authored by subject matter experts, about memories changing and specifically the memory of science celebrity Neil DeGrasse Tyson. It touches on a controversy I’ve followed for a few months: I’ve thought that Ben Domenech’s otherwise-intriguing website‘s repeated attempts to pick a fight with Dr. Tyson was more than a little bit mean-spirited, given what I’ve observed before about peoples’ memories morphing over time (I’ve seen witnesses emphatically recant their own videotaped depositions), so the Times piece seemed to me to fit very precisely with my own observations and studies of this phenomenon.
Now, I could see pointing out, “Hey, this prominent guy made a mistake and here’s a more accurate version,” or even “Is this prominent guy distorting things for some political purpose?” but the level of anger and frustration directed at Tyson in this campaign was confusing to me, especially given where that campaign was being waged: a conservative website I’d come to enjoy for thoughtful, intellectually challenging voices.
I’ve come to suspect the source of the ire was Tyson’s narration of the new Cosmos‘ first episode’s condemnation of the medieval Church’s persecution of Giordano Bruno, though my viewing was that the show celebrated Bruno not just as a martyr for science but also as a champion of a God more complex and powerful than his persecutors had imagined. That’s not to say that Cosmos’ treatment of Bruno’s persecution was accurate and fair to the point that it is above criticism, because it isn’t. But the Federalist didn’t offer a deep criticism on this subject, while most of its fire was devoted to the Bruno issue, it threw a punch for the sake of throwing a punch.
Still, Tyson admitted his mistake.
I referred the Gray Lady article to a colleague today, for other reasons, but re-reading it reminded me that it seems to offer everyone in the dispute an honorable way to move on — and which would pretty clearly give Domenech the win.
But it looks like Domenech isn’t willing to give up the ghost; he’s got some fire for the Gray Lady itself for both suggesting anything but the worst possible interpretation of Tyson’s entirely human behavior, and for not agreeing with him that Tyson’s mea culpa and promised revision to his standard speech aren’t good enough to merit the noble appellation of “apology.”
Ah, well; whaddyagonnado? Critics gonna criticize. Or as I’ve seen in court sometimes, people get addicted to the thrill of the attack and there’s nothing for it but to let them do their thing again and again until they realize on their own that they aren’t really accomplishing much of anything.
Or, maybe Domenech thinks he is accomplishing something — this does attract eyeballs and links to his site. But such a proffer will only accrue to his long-term benefit if there’s more of it, creating an incentive to put together more attack pieces of little meaningful intellectual content. This would necessarily be at the expense of the conservative thought that has been on offer there, thought worthy of sober deliberation. If The Federalist is going to descend into becoming just another venue where I can read conservative venom, well, that’s already on plentiful offer nearly everywhere anyway. I’d been hoping for more elevated content — but I guess the selling power of the LCD always wins in the end.
Image source: wikimedia commons, with modifications by the author.
Burt Likko is the pseudonym of an attorney in Southern California. His interests include Constitutional law with a special interest in law relating to the concept of separation of church and state, cooking, good wine, and bad science fiction movies. Follow his sporadic Tweets at @burtlikko, and his Flipboard at Burt Likko.
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