Monday, February 15, 2016

My Scalia Experience

Now that Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia has died, one can find tributes to him everywhere, even from some liberals. He is being lauded for his intelligence and for being a nice guy in person.

Well, my Scalia experience is different. First, he may have been extremely intelligent, but even intelligent people can have blind spots. For Scalia, one obvious blind spot was the theory of evolution. Not only did he not understand the status of the theory among scientists, as Stephen Gould famously pointed out, but he also recently used the figure "5000 years" as an estimate for the age of humanity, when the actual figure is more like 100,000 to 200,000 years.

And as for being a nice guy, I can only tell about my own experience. Sometime in the late-1980's (I think it was 1987) he came to give a speech at the University of Chicago when I was teaching there. At the end of the talk there was time for questions. I asked a question -- and I don't really remember what it was about -- and Scalia got all huffy. He said something like, "I don't think that's appropriate for me to answer. In fact, it was completely inappropriate for you to ask."

Well, it wasn't. It was something definitely appropriate and about constitutional law, even if I don't quite remember what I asked. What I remember was the contempt he expressed in his words and body language that anyone would dare ask.

So maybe it's true, as some have said, that he was a wonderful guy with a great sense of humor and enormous intelligence. All I can say as an outsider is, not in my experience.


lukebarnes said...

We know that human memory is extremely malleable and unreliable, even just a few years after major events. And it is relatively easy to create false memories through a variety of techniques. Humans are just not good reporters of events that they witness, especially after a long period of time has gone by. There is a huge literature on this.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

True enough. But you know what? My memory is actually pretty good. For example, I recently recalled the events of a baseball game I witnessed in 1967, and then I checked my memory by going to a contemporary newspaper account of the game. And my memory was right in nearly every respect.

So when my memory is strong, I tend to be right. When it is weak, I say so (as in, for example, my memory of the question I asked).

I don't claim to be exempt from invented memories, but I can say that in the one chance I had to check, I was nearly completely correct.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

And by the way, I instantly recognized that you were quoting me, so my memory of that is pretty good, too. (One tipoff was the line "And it is relatively easy to create false memories through a variety of techniques" which was clearly inappropriate in the context.)

lukebarnes said...

Even if *you* are justified in believing your own recollections based on their strength, should I believe them just because you *say* that they are strong? False memories can be held very strongly by those who have them.

Indeed, the evidence for a false memory is not insubstantial. Note the vagueness of the phrase "all huffy", a emotional description which could have easily been overlaid on Scalia's comments by the intervening three decades of your frustration with American conservatives. The evidence of the baseball game is similarly inconclusive. You are a mathematician, and so could be expected to remember details about numbers in games - innings, balls, strikes, home runs etc are all numbers. The memory of Scalia, on the other hand, is an impression of his emotional response. Furthermore, you have only one data point to substantiate your claim that strong memory -> correct memory, and that data point relies on your memory of checking the newspaper.

Obviously, I've moved decisively into smart-arse territory at this point. I have no reason to doubt your honesty, in general or in this particular case. My comments are intended as satire: they *aren't* good reasons to doubt your account. I'm probing the limits of playing the "memory is unreliable" card. What we really need to understand is: When is memory reliable? When should witnesses be believed? I'm trying to read a bit about this myself.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

I don't really know why you are playing this game. I was trying to answer honestly. You can take my recollection or leave it as you like.

I know I've been wrong about some memories, and I try to take this into account when I evaluate the strength of my own belief.

On other data point: I attend a trivia contest weekly with a group of friends. In team trivia it's not just what you know, it's also how well you can evaluate your confidence in your own knowledge, so as to know when to insist on overruling an answer of others. Other people on my team know more about some topics, but I seem to be better in estimating the degree of confidence in the answers. So when I overrule others, I seem to be more likely to be correct.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Oh, and the baseball memory was not just about numbers; it also included things like names of players: Richie Allen, who hit a very long home run. And Tony Gonzalez, who won the game in the bottom of the 10th with another.

By the way, if you think mathematicians are better with remembering numbers, you haven't met many mathematicians.

lukebarnes said...

I'm being opaque. I'll try again. My opening quotes were from you (as you noted), in the context of calling into question certain historical claims on the basis that memory is fallible. Your comments are quite general: "Humans are just not good reporters of events that they witness".

You've also claimed - implicitly about Scalia and explicitly in these comments - that you are a good reporter of events that you witnessed several decades ago (even if, in cases like Scalia, you do not remember all the details.)

Now, given that you are a human, you are claiming to be an exception to the general trend. Why? What makes a human being a good reporter? Under what circumstances? And if good human reporters exist, then simply saying that "human memory is extremely unreliable" is not a sufficient reason to doubt a witness. Once we know what makes a good reporter, we can ask: Is this witness, in these circumstances, a good reporter?

Jeffrey Shallit said...

It's like asking why is someone a good mathematician. I don't think we know enough about the brain to know why people have the exceptional intellectual abilities they possess. So while I think your question is a good one, I doubt we have the tools to answer it currently.

Jeffrey Shallit said...

Oh, and I don't entirely believe you are just interested in what makes a good witness. I have a pretty good idea what your real goal is, and it's not really parallel.

My experiences are mundane (a baseball game, a Supreme Court justice refuses to answer a question), whereas the events depicted in the synoptic gospels are without parallel in human history. Even if one accepts the claim that there were large numbers of witnesses to those events (and I don't), surely their exceptionality demands a much higher standard of proof than the things I report.

William Spearshake said...

"We know that human memory is extremely malleable and unreliable, even just a few years after major events."

Yet some are willing to give credence to textual representations that were recorded several generations after they "allegedly" occurred.

Mark said...

A number of politicians running for higher office (well, every single Republican vying for the presidential nomination) have been demonstrating that their memories are extremely unreliable and as malleable as public opinion requires. Fortunately in many cases, there are transcripts and videos to set the record straight.