The Limits of Understanding — A Guest Book Review by Samuel Crowell


The Limits of Understanding

Samuel Crowell


Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism

by W. Joseph Campbell

University of California Press, 288 pp., 2010


Believing Is Seeing: Observations on the Mysteries of Photography

by Errol Morris

Penguin Press, 336 pp., 2011


A Wilderness of Error

by Errol Morris

Penguin Press, 544 pp., 2012


The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies — How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths

by Michael Shermer

St. Martin's Griffin; Reprint edition, 400 pp., 2012

IN A SHORT STORY called “The Last Judgment” Karel Capek tells of a murderer who upon his death arrives in heaven to be judged. God himself appears as his witness, providing the context for the murders. When the celestial jury retires, the murderer turns to God and asks why he isn’t judging him. God replies: “Because I know everything, I can’t possibly judge.” 

Humans do not know everything. Perhaps that is why we are so good at judging. But while omniscience remains beyond the realm of human possibility, it is at least true that knowledge and understanding are always increasing. We learn every day, and we change our minds. To phrase the matter in broadly philosophical terms, we might begin with the observation that while human knowledge can never achieve the pure being of the Almighty, it is nevertheless in a constant state of becoming: What we knew yesterday is not the same as what we know today.

For centuries, the problem of human knowledge was the exclusive concern of philosophy and religion. It is resonant in Plato’s cave and in the Hindu veil of Maya. But in the modern era – perhaps owing to Descartes, perhaps Kant, perhaps to bourgeois civilization itself – the emphasis has shifted. Epistemological questions are now more likely to be addressed by reference to human consciousness as well as the cultures that surround, and whose content constitutes, our individual minds. This shift has led in various directions, including the contextual analysis of information disseminated through popular media, the study of “narratives” or specific interpretations of facts, and ruminations on the physical structure of the brain and how the human mind operates. The four books discussed below touch on one or more of these themes.


W. Joseph Campbell’s Getting it Wrong is about inaccuracies in American journalism. In many of the cases he discusses, there is a factoid or judgment which, according to Campbell, becomes an unchallenged truth. Thus, the purpose of the book’s ten entries is to set the record straight.

Some of the topics seem forced, turning on a confusion of media. While it may be that some people believe that Edward R. Murrow caused Joe McCarthy’s downfall, for one example, or that Woodward and Bernstein brought about Richard Nixon’s resignation, for another, it is likely that people who hold such views have been influenced by the relevant popular films, Good Night and Good Luck and All the President’s Men, respectively. Yet films make no pretense to objectivity or accuracy; they are not journalism. Consequently, the debunking of these claims, although interesting, informative, and well researched, seems somewhat superfluous.

A more promising case involves Orson Welles’ famous “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast of 1938.  Here, Campbell seeks to argue that the “mass hysteria” or “mass delusion” engendered by the broadcast has been exaggerated, largely by journalists. Yet, as he concedes, the largest estimate of those who believed the broadcast – about 1.2 million – came from a professor at Princeton.

Intent on minimizing the effect of the broadcast, Campbell argues that many people who might have been affected by the radio play did not necessarily tune in – that the reaction often came second-hand, being fed by private fears. In one sense, this is precious reasoning, since the broadcast clearly fed any later reactions. On the other hand, private fears of war and poison gas would certainly have fueled the panic, especially when we consider that the Munich crisis had played out just a few weeks before the broadcast. Unfortunately, Campbell fails to explore the surrounding historical context in any detail. He is more successful in reducing the high estimate of 1.2 million people affected, but he is wrong to think that by diminishing the numbers sufficiently he can refute the claim of mass hysteria altogether.

Part of the problem concerns nomenclature. In my own writings, I have tended to use the terms “mass hysteria” (or “mass psychogenic illness [MPI]” or “conversion disorder”) and “mass delusion” (of which “moral panic” is an offshoot) more or less interchangeably, simply because such phenomena are often linked in appearance. However, there is a difference: Mass psychogenic illness, or conversion disorder, usually involves actual physical symptoms, and the number of those afflicted can be very small. For example, in late 2011 and early 2012 there was an episode in Le Roy, New York, in which about a dozen individuals, mostly teenage girls, began to exhibit symptoms of Tourette’s Syndrome. This was ultimately recognized as an instance of conversion syndrome, or mass hysteria, despite the small numbers involved. There were at least as many who believed they were being gassed during the “War of the Worlds” panic.

Distinguished from mass hysteria, a mass delusion may be described in less sensational terms as any popular false belief, but the term is usually restricted to false beliefs that have some hysterical manifestations and that are reflective of larger social or public concerns. The witchcraft mania that seized Salem, Massachusetts in 1692 might be so categorized, as might the localized mass delusions of the 1980s concerning satanic ritual abuse of children in daycare facilities. But an instance of mass delusion need not be of long duration. What makes a delusion durable and long lasting is the authoritative endorsement of the delusion. Campbell concedes that very large numbers of people called police departments to inquire about the Martian attack. What this means is that very large numbers of people accepted, however briefly, the mass delusion the broadcast engendered. The panic did not rise to the level of a full-blown mass delusion because it was squelched at every turn as it began to proliferate. 

The larger point that Campbell seeks to make is that the news media tends to exaggerate its own importance, either in determining public attitudes and beliefs or in driving national policy. That leads to the centerpiece of his book, a discussion of an apocryphal exchange between the newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst and the newspaper illustrator (and artist and sculptor) Frederick Remington.

The story goes that Remington went to Cuba in early 1898 seeking material for illustrations of Spanish brutality to be published in Hearst’s papers. He found none. Consequently, he is supposed to have telegraphed to Hearst that he was unable to find any suitable subjects. Hearst, in turn, is supposed to have wired back: “You supply the pictures, we will supply the war!”

Campbell does a very good job in analyzing the timeline to show that the Hearst-Remington exchange never took place. He is much less successful in arguing that the Spanish-American war was a legitimate reaction to a “human rights catastrophe.” He downplays evidence of reckless newspaper bellicosity and  the effect that popular war fever would have on the decisions of national politicians. For example, while Campbell concedes that the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana harbor was an accident (it has been well accepted since Hyman Rickover’s commission report in the 1970s that the most likely cause of the explosion that sank the ship was spontaneous combustion in the coal bunkers, which moved to the forward ammunition magazine), there is hardly any mention of the war hysteria that took root after popular press reports implicating a Spanish “infernal device” (engin d’enfer, what we would now call an IED). Yet the effectiveness of such media fervor can be registered, to this day, in the gaudy, gold-plated monument that overpowers the Columbus Circle entrance to New York City’s Central Park.

Similarly, while successfully arguing for the non-existence of the Hearst-Remington telegrams, Campbell then includes an illustration by Remington of a blindfolded political prisoner that appeared in Hearst’s papers to support the contention that Remington had in fact found suitable subjects during his trip. Yet that illustration appeared weeks after Remington had returned from Cuba. Perhaps more significantly, Campbell also fails to develop a rather notorious episode – later, in February 1898 – in which Remington provided what amounted to a drawing of a nude Gibson girl being leered at by lecherous Spanish customs officers with diabolical mustaches out of an Italian opera. Following a headline screaming, “Does Our Flag Protect Women?” the illustration was intended to stir outrage over the alleged body searches of American travelers. Of course, it is known that this story was exaggerated, and it is known that the sensational representation was completely false: No American woman was ever “outraged” in such a manner. Remington simply made up the picture out of his mind, with some assistance, legend asserts, from the wife of one of his Long Island neighbors. In other words, Remington was providing fraudulent pictures, and Hearst was providing …

If we take Campbell’s logic all the way through we would end up arguing that “the media” has no role, or at any rate, very little role, in promoting propaganda. This is not merely counterintuitive; it is contradicted by many historical examples. Never mind the Hearst-Remington exchange, the Ems Telegram of 1870 was sufficient, for both French and German media, to launch the Franco-Prussian War. The Zimmerman telegram, and the sinking of the Lusitania, were also sufficient to rally American support for America’s entry into the First World War. These examples could be multiplied many times.

Campbell’s response would be that, whatever the power of the media, it is much less than the power of our elected officials, and therefore when we concentrate on the media rather than the real holders of power, we make a fundamental error. There is some truth to this proposition. While the media certainly played a role in promoting the Gulf of Tonkin incident (which led to US ground involvement in Vietnam), the bogus Kuwaiti incubator story (which rallied support for the First Gulf War) and the mass hysteria surrounding Saddam Hussein’s supposed “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” it is true that government agencies were the ultimate source of these propaganda claims. However, without media propagation none of these claims would have achieved the level of acceptance that they later received.  Hence, the media’s responsibility, or co-responsibility, in “getting it wrong” cannot be avoided.  Curiously, Campbell discusses none of these claims.

If Hearst’s newspapers in the 1890s used illustrations to promote and propagandize for a particular set of truths, photography, which, at first glance, should be immune to artifice, is the subject of a penetrating analysis by the American documentarian Errol Morris in his book, Believing is Seeing.

Morris’ book grew out of a series of articles in the New York Times in which he analyzed photographs for context, intention, and meaning. The first, and probably best, of these articles concerned two photographs of the British war photographer Roger Fenton, both taken outside of Sevastopol, Russia, during the Crimean War in 1854. Both photographs showed an identical road passing through the Russian countryside: One, with cannonballs strewn on the side of the road; the second, with cannonballs still strewn on the side, but also with a dozen or so emplaced on the road itself. Morris’ initial question was: Which photograph came first?

The conventional interpretation is that the photo without the cannonballs on the road came first, and that the second was arranged by Fenton afterward, in order to communicate a sense of danger, or personal danger. I won’t go over the methodical reconstruction that Morris follows, nor will I give away his answer; however, I do not think that any arrangement of the scene is necessarily blameworthy. After all, many of the cannonballs on the side of the road were probably, at one point, on the road, and I see no reason why that scene cannot be recreated in good faith.

However, this leads Morris into other questions concerning the integrity of photographs, and whether they can fairly represent objective reality. He poses the fundamental epistemological question delightfully: “We want to know where we end, and the world begins” – in other words, in a picture, or in anything, how much of ourselves do we have to remove from the equation before we see reality as it is?  Later, he goes further, claiming that, with photographs, “our beliefs can defeat sensory evidence,” and “what we see is not independent of our beliefs,” by which Morris is implicitly accepting that our perceptions and our understanding are mediated by preconceptions, or what Israel Zangwill, in The Big Bow Mystery, described as “prepossession.”

Morris extends his philosophical study of preconceptions in A Wilderness of Error. In this case, he is primarily concerned with narrative, or interpretation, and it is his conviction that as people allow themselves to accept a particular narrative, they become impervious to contrary evidence. 

This is not a particularly novel insight, although Morris develops it in his typically engaging manner. The notion of beliefs hardening into rigid narratives, or interpretations, only later to be challenged, is a staple in the history of science (witness the evolution of the Germ Theory of Disease, or Plate Tectonics, or the Copernican Revolution) and easily ties into more recondite discussions, such as have been advanced in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions or, more broadly, in Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance.

The vehicle for Morris’ discussion is the Jeffrey MacDonald murder case from the 1970s. The facts are briefly stated: Fort Bragg MPs arrived at the base residence of Jeffrey MacDonald at 4:00 A.M. on February 17, 1970.  In the house, they found a barely conscious MacDonald, a surgeon attached to the Green Berets, who had suffered a number of small wounds with little bleeding, and one puncture wound on his right side that had partially collapsed a lung. They also found the bodies of MacDonald’s wife and two daughters, both of whom had been bludgeoned with a bed slat and repeatedly stabbed with an ice pick to the chest and neck as well as with a paring knife, with large amounts of bleeding. There appears to be a consensus that all of the weapons were from the house, and they were in any case recovered outside the back door of the residence.

MacDonald’s explanation is that he had fallen asleep on the couch in the living room and was awakened by the screams of his wife and eldest daughter to find four hippies standing over him, two white men, a black man, and a woman wearing a floppy hat and holding a candle (or flashlight). The woman, according to MacDonald, was chanting “Kill the Pigs, Acid is groovy!” MacDonald further relates that he was overpowered by the hippies, that he collapsed and passed out on the floor leading from the living room, sometime later regaining consciousness to find his family murdered.

The Army’s criminal investigative unit accepted MacDonald’s story at first, but six weeks later he was identified as the prime suspect. However, by the end of the year the Army’s (Article 32) preliminary hearing concluded that there was insufficient evidence to charge MacDonald. MacDonald was subsequently allowed to resign his commission, and he then moved to Southern California where he pursued a career as an emergency room physician.

The case did not end there. The Army continued to pursue leads, MacDonald’s father-in-law studied the transcripts and evidence, and pushed for a trial, and finally MacDonald was tried, this time on federal charges, and in 1979 he was convicted of triple homicide. Excepting appeals, he has been in prison ever since.

The MacDonald homicide case is based on circumstantial evidence. As with other widely reported cases hinging on circumstantial evidence – such as those involving OJ Simpson, Casey Anthony, Scott Peterson, and Amanda Knox – there are no eyewitnesses, and there is no confession. Such cases routinely become high profile, much discussed, and much argued about. And the verdicts – however they are decided – often become a battleground for partisans for years or even decades after the books are officially closed.

This is where Morris comes in. His study of the case has convinced him that, due to preconceptions of MacDonald’s guilt, people had decided the case before the facts were completely known. He believes that the case was wrongly decided, not only because of errors in evidence handling and judicial procedure, but also because the presumption of MacDonald’s guilt prevented people from looking at the circumstantial evidence in a neutral way, or from investigating other pieces of evidence that may be relevant to the case.

A Wilderness of Error thus proceeds as a critical review of the case. Morris examines the handling of the accepted physical evidence (the blood evidence, MacDonald’s pajama top, and so forth) and presents many interviews that touch on prosecutorial errors and possible misconduct. There is also discussion of unexplained evidence, but Morris draws special attention to a young woman, Helana Stoeckley, a resident of nearby Fayetteville who in the 1970s made several confused confessions about being at the crime scene.

It is hard to see why Morris is enamored of Ms. Stoeckley’s confessions. A drug addict and occasional police informer, Stoeckley, by her own admission, was tripping on mescaline the night of the murders and had no immediate memory of being at the homicide scene. It was only after dreaming about the case for several months that she concluded that she was there, which right away suggests a case of recovered memory and obsession, rather than factual truth. Much of the content of her various confessions is frustratingly vague or incomplete, and could have been culled from local reportage of the murders, or imagined, or guessed; especially so, since there was a nine-year hiatus between the commission of the crimes and the actual trial. When Stoeckley was finally asked by the defense to testify after a dramatic plea by MacDonald’s lead attorney, she deflated the situation by insisting that she was not at the murder scene, that MacDonald was guilty, and that she wanted to be fed. A day or two later she testified, denying any knowledge of the murders. Morris believes that she lied on the witness stand, based partly on another recovered memory found in an affidavit written 26 years after the fact. But this allegation has also been contradicted by the main prosecutor in the case.

Outside of such debunking, Morris never confronts the implications of the evidence he chooses to accept or highlight. For example, the blood evidence indicates that the eldest child was bludgeoned in the master bedroom and then put into her own bed where she was again bludgeoned and stabbed. The evidence further indicates that MacDonald’s wife was attacked in the master bedroom, bludgeoned and stabbed in the younger child’s bedroom, and that her body was then returned the master bedroom where it was repeatedly stabbed with an icepick. Given that there were supposed to have been (at least) four intruders, all situated, one imagines, in a narrow hallway, why the moving about?  The prosecution has a narrative that provides for this evidence. Neither the defense nor Morris offers one.

Or take the case of the 22-inch-long saran fiber, suitable for blonde wigs or a doll’s hair, or possibly even the interior lining of one of the wigs MacDonald’s wife possessed. The prosecution argues that this came from a doll; Morris argues – fairly convincingly – that it did not. But that doesn’t support the argument that it came from some putative wig that Helena Stoeckley possessed. How did it get on the brush?  This would require, according to MacDonald’s scenario, that the woman intoning “Kill the Pigs, Acid is groovy!” would have had to put down her candle and take off her floppy hat and then – for no clear reason – start brushing the hair of her wig. There is no evidence or claim that she did.

The evidence of the pajama top? The prosecution’s theory holds that the holes correspond to the ice pick wounds in the chest of MacDonald’s wife (in multiples, because the garment was folded) and is consistent with the fact that there are fibers of the top throughout the crime scene, including under his wife’s corpse.  Morris is not very successful in arguing away this evidence, but this evidence is strongly supportive of MacDonald’s guilt, not least because it contradicts MacDonald’s own testimony, in which he described fighting off the attackers with his pajama top and placing it on his wife because her chest was exposed.

One of the MPs who arrived at the MacDonald house the night of the murders saw a woman in a wide brimmed hat standing outside of a convenience store a few of blocks away from the crime scene, and after hearing MacDonald’s story, pointed it out to his superiors. This angle was never pursued, although “wide brimmed” and “floppy” are not exactly synonyms. Morris considers this suspicious, yet, the former MP, in his interview with Morris is adamant that whoever the woman was, it was not Helena Stoeckley, since he knew her by sight from civilian patrols in Fayetteville. Morris does not believe this man’s testimony, even though the police sketches of the woman in the floppy hat as described by MacDonald bear no resemblance to Helena Stoeckley and MacDonald denied having ever seen Stoeckley when he was provided with a photograph of her in court.

Morris harshly criticizes the prosecution’s proposed intention, or motive, which is based on a character assessment of MacDonald’s egotism, hedonism, and known use of amphetamines. Yet he never offers a plausible motive for the four alleged intruders, which, intentional fallacy or not, remains a big problem.

Morris’ meditation on the constricting nature of an imposed narrative simply fails to convince. In the first place, there was no Philip K. Dickian Black Iron Prison in play: MacDonald’s in-laws were convinced of his innocence for well over a year until they began to go through the transcripts of the preliminary hearing.  The Army itself concluded that there was insufficient evidence to charge MacDonald, and he was allowed to resign his commission and spend most of the next twelve years fornicating with dozens of women in Southern California. In short, there never was a dominant narrative that was immovable, requiring careful spadework to overturn.

The second reason why Morris’ analysis of narrative structure ultimately fails is that he never offers a persuasive counter-narrative at all.  If you want to argue against a traditional interpretation of evidence – a “narrative,” as it were – then you have to take in account as much of the evidence as possible and recast it into a new narrative. Otherwise you are simply debunking single pieces of evidence. This is not to say that other narrative possibilities do not exist. Conceivably, one could start with the transcript of MacDonald’s initial interrogation in April, 1970. Yet MacDonald’s father-in-law identified over a hundred points of implausibility, and impossibility – because of conflict with the uncontested physical evidence – in that transcript. Most of these points remain unexplained by MacDonald’s advocates, as well as by Morris. Or one could adopt one of the shifting narratives of Helena Stoeckley, which tend to be vague, nebulous, and probably influenced by information leaks in the media and elsewhere. In fairness, Morris recognizes the likelihood of such contamination.

During the trial in 1979 MacDonald provided access to the American author Joe McGinnis. The idea was that, privileged with such access, McGinnis would write a profitable book about the case and the trial, and though there were no strictures placed on McGinnis in terms of what he would write, it was assumed that his narrative would be favorable and exculpatory. But when Fatal Vision was published in 1983, it argued for MacDonald’s guilt. Feeling that his trust had been betrayed, MacDonald’s sued McGinnis in civil court in a case that eventually settled for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The MacDonald-McGinnis trial would become the subject of two major articles in The New Yorker by Janet Malcolm. These articles would later be republished as a book entitled The Journalist and the Murderer. The book is famous for its central contention that journalism is “morally indefensible” because it involves gaining the trust of the subject who is in turn objectified in prose by the journalist. The betrayal of privilege, Malcolm counseled, is always in the background of a journalistic encounter.

Morris discusses Malcolm’s book, but mainly to castigate what he perceives as her relativism with regard to truth, facts, and actuality. Malcolm wrote: “If you start off with a presumption of guilt, you read the documents one way, and another way if you presume his innocence. The evidence does not ‘speak for itself.’”  I take this as an expression of Malcolm’s enervation and despair over her study of the case, but Morris considers it completely wrong, countering that, “True, evidence never speaks for itself.  It exists as part of a theory or story or narrative, but stories can be tested against reality.” Here, Morris is to some extent criticizing analogous comments he made in Believing is Seeing, except that he maintains that objective truth is possible, provided one sufficiently engages the details. Unfortunately, given his own limited treatment of the evidence, A Wilderness of Error can only be considered a first draft in that direction.

In the end, then, Morris is left with lawyerly scraps. He criticizes the handling of the evidence, the conduct of the trial, and half a dozen pieces of physical evidence (“errant data” to conspiracy buffs) for which he never articulates any interpretation. If Morris had provided a coherent counter-narrative, taking into account all of the physical and testimonial evidence, or as much of it as possible, and including the various problems with MacDonald’s testimonies, then his book would have significantly greater force. As it stands, A Wilderness of Error is a less-than-persuasive entry in the literature of debunking. But this also has value insofar as the adoption of minority views frequently has a heuristic effect, leading to a greater expansion of knowledge. In that respect, it may still claim some success.

The absence of a counter-narrative, or alternative interpretation, in Morris’ study may be instructive to consider in light of the ideas developed by Michael Shermer in The Believing Brain, a book which investigates the actual need – perhaps even the biological need – that humans have for narratives, proven or not. Shermer, who has written and published on skeptical themes for decades, here presents his theories for why people believe things (that is, accept as fact on little or no evidence) and how beliefs acquire the finality of knowledge. 

Much of Shermer’s book consists of exposition about various beliefs, material that Shermer has covered before in books like Why People Believe Weird Things, but there is no need to go over the superstitious element animating beliefs in such things as UFOs, extra-terrestrials, and various conspiracies. Where the book is most interesting is in his attempt to harness neurobiology to set forth a theory for how the mind operates using the concepts of “patternicity” and “agenticity.”

Since I have cultivated my own assumptions about how the human mind operates, I would like to present my thinking here. A key element, it seems to me, is that humans are cause seeking animals. In other words, whatever is, it is natural for people to look for where it came from, how it got there, and what made it happen. Coupled with this notion of causality there is another human tendency: to expect all action to either follow predictable causal laws or to be determined by deliberate agency. Shermer has similar views, but he calls the first consequence “patternicity,” that is, the human tendency to discern patterns (e.g., faces in clouds) and calls the second “agenticity,” that is, the tendency to see sufficient cause in apparently random occurrences (e.g., conspiracy theories that seek to explain the accidental death of Princess Diana.) 

As it happens, I agree with Shermer since my own thinking has run along the same lines. However, there are two points on which I would demur. First, if these characteristics are accepted as innate, I am not sure why it should be necessary to try to shut them off by rational analysis. It seems to me it would be better to canalize ingrained human impulses into more disciplined and less destructive channels. Of course, this invites recognition of the value of organized religion – a turn now regarded with suspicion. Second, I am not sure that Shermer’s discussion, considered in detail, is quite convincing. At a minimum, The Believing Brain is yet another acknowledgement of the ways in which our perception and our knowledge are constrained, in this case, by the actual physical structure of our brains.


The four books under review discuss many ways in which our knowledge and understanding are frustrated by the quality of the information we receive, by the preconceptions we hold, and by our actual physical selves. Some tentative conclusions present themselves:

1. Our determination of facts, or evidence, is largely informed by our intuitions of the whole of a situation. You can follow Zangwill and call it "prepossession," or Malcolm and call it "preconception," but Morris is still right in the sense that something approximating objectivity is possible and the evaluation of evidence and facts will lead one to a satisfying narrative. I think that's good enough, even to cover reasonable doubt in a criminal case, but Errol Morris clearly feels differently.

2. Most people's apprehension of facts or evidence outside of their personal sphere comes from outside sources: Media, government, and so on. The purveyors of that information, on the other hand, are bound to impose some kind of narrative structure, or even aesthetic structure (in the case of visual media), on that data before it is transmitted. This represents just another impediment to accurate knowledge. There are, in other words, layers upon layers of structure – or as Shermer would say, “patternicity” – that may interfere between the bareness of a datum and its reception.

3. The manner in which media structure information for public consumption can be demonstrated in various ways: By analysis of the context of photographs (which involves the attempt to divine authorial intent), or by the careful analysis of media claims (which are frequently self-advertising, as Campbell’s book demonstrates).

4. Interestingly, while a discussion of intentionality (or motive in a criminal case, or with reference to a person’s character) is routinely dispatched in the study of cultural products (and for good reasons), it remains essential to any historical reconstruction. Insofar as this involves a fallacy, the fallacy is absolutely certainty, which should be simply a call to modesty, not a call to abandon the quest. 

I began with a parable by Karel Capek in which God refused to judge. It is tempting to close with the consonant French proverb, “tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner,” or, “to understand everything, that is to forgive everything.”  But I think the reality is more complex. Understanding and judgment are clean different things. The process of understanding is keyed to the acquisition of knowledge; it is a process of expanding, and embracing, ever larger and wider contexts. But in addition to mere factual knowledge, understanding requires a willingness to embrace the subject and all the details of the case. It requires intuition, empathy, communion, imagination, as well as knowledge. Only in this way can one convincingly (if only in one’s own mind) overcome the myriad hurdles of interference thrown up by our cognitive limitations, our preconceptions, and the distortions in how the data is presented.

Judgment, on the other hand, requires distance; at minimum, the distance to point a finger. The necessity for passing judgment, for humans, may be both biologically determined and necessary for social order. It may be required for the maintenance of moral values or cherished beliefs, but it is not the same thing as the desire to know. A judgment is a state of being. Understanding, on the other hand, is relentlessly becoming.



Click here to read W. Joseph Campbell's "Media Myth Alert"

  Believing is Seeing


Wilderness of error

Click here to visit Errol Morris' site

Beieving Brain

Click here to visit Michael Shermer's site


Click here to learn more about Samuel Crowell's work


Editor's note: The above review was contributed by Samuel Crowell, author of The Gas Chamber of Sherlock Holmes: And Other Writings on the Holocaust, Revisionism, and Historical Understanding. An updated version will be published in the first Nine-Banded Sourcebook and Reader, which is slated for release in mid-2013.

memento mori.


memento mori.