November 27, 2007

Which Is Worse: An Altered Photo of Reality, Or A Photo That Alters Reality?

doctored photos.jpg

On the left is real 1989 Tiananmen Square.  On the right, a doctored photo.  300 people were shown either a real or altered photo of two different protests, and then asked to recall what happened back then.  The point of this study was to show that altering a photograph will change how the events are actually remembered (in this case, as bigger and more violent.)  It's important to emphasize that the subjects already had a memory of the events (from TV, etc)-- so this photo actually changed their pre-existing memories, and they weren't aware of it.

But, here's the thing: these subjects weren't actually at the original protests.  Their original memories also came from images-- hopefully not altered images, but certainly selected images.  Right?  The TV newspeople didn't pick the boring pictures, did they?  I get that doctored photos are bad.  But how much of our memories and knowledge of the past are largely determined not by "reality" but what, or how, we were shown it in the first place.  Obviously, a lot.  Therein lies the question: is it worse to see a doctored photo, or doctored reality?

Here's an example: search your mind for recollections about the Tiananmen "episode" in 1989.  Can you remember anything-- anything at all-- other than that guy standing in front of the tanks?  Do you remember who was protesting? Why?  The question isn't why you don't remember anything, hell, it was 20 years ago and a solar system away; the question is why you do remember that guy.  Are you better off for knowing this?  Are you smarter?  Or do you carry the false impression that you know something about which you really know nothing?  That's the Matrix-- not only do you have false memories, but you get to feel good about being a knowledgeable, aware, citizen of the world. 

NPR runs a cult this way.  It offers an eclectic mix of topics, selected on purpose to allow you to think you are getting depth. You listen to NPR, and you think you're learning, growing, becoming a Renaissance Man. You're not.  Sure, it beats CNN, but that's not a battle anyone is supposed to lose.   Its target audience is insecurely intelligent people who want desperately to be intellectual and well read but who don't actually want to read too much.  What NPR offers is sentiment; the feeling that you know something.  That's why when someone asks you a question about a topic you learned about from NPR, you inevitably answer using the same language and words NPR used.  Do you understand?  Back during the election, I'd bet people at the bar that I could tell them the reasons, using the exact same words, why they'd vote for their candidate.
This speaks to psychiatry, of course-- and politics, and economics...  when so few bother to read primary sources, instead relying on "experts" to tell us what was in the primary sources, is altered data really going to matter?  I'm not for changing reality, but when you can spin a story any way you want regardless of the truth, and no one will bother to check it, what difference do facts make?

Think about this: no one would know you altered a photo or data in a primary source article, because no one would ever actually see it.  They'd only hear about it. (Same with references.)


But wait, there's more. 

The two news articles aptly summarize the study, but why did they bother to summarize this study?  Well, the message was pretty important to journalists: "doctoring of photos is bad, you bad journalists who do it."

The best line comes at the end of the one story:

"[Doctoring photos is] potentially a form of human engineering that could be applied to us against our knowledge and against our wishes, and we ought to be vigilant about it," said UC Irvine psychologist Elizabeth Loftus, who designed the study. " a society we have to figure how we can regulate this."

Regulate?  What, the use of doctored photos in the media, which is actually already regulated?  Or the doctoring of photos anywhere-- maybe a disclaimer?  An automatic Photoshop watermark that says "This photo altered reality with techniques other than staging, lighting, cropping, deletion of undesired photos of this event, the placing in proximity to or away from other photos, and does not fit in with the currently acceptable social narrative as determined by your betters?"

Sorry, I'm wrong; the best line comes at the end of the other news story about this study:

"Any media that employ digitally doctored photographs will have a stronger effect than merely influencing our opinion -- by tampering with our malleable memory, they may ultimately change the way we recall history," says lead author Dario Sacchi.

Really?  Only the ones that use doctored photos?

Really? Change the way we recall history-- the old way of being told what happened was so much better?


A man can walk away from a news story like this and feel like they understood the point.  He can then pat himself on the back if they go look up the actual study and confirm the point.

But it's not enough.  What's the context?

You say: "whaddya mean context?  It's science, it's the pursuit of truth."  Well, ok, you should go back to NPR.

Part of the problem with reading articles on line is that you don't get to see the other articles in the issue, which together tell a story. 

The study appears in Applied Cognitive Psychology.  In the same issue appears a well thought out article about how the media influence the "public narrative;"  another study called, "Photographs Can Distort Memory For The News" in which they find that a (real) photograph accompanying a news article will add memories the subject thought came from the story; and a tie-in essay that concludes, "Taken together, the papers in this special section show how the media can shape what we believe, what we know, and what we remember."

Do you see?  You have a set of facts that can be manipulated endlessly to tell any story you want.  Here, a journal issue about being wary of the awesome power of the media gets used by journalists to say watch out for Photoshop.

If it was malicious, you could punch someone, but it's not, that's the point: the authors of the news articles probably didn't even know what else was in that journal. They got partial information, and ran with it.  And, of course, by printing it they thus validate it.

It's like James Joyce said, "we can never know the truth so long as we have ears and eyes."  Actually, he didn't say that, but do you see how you paid attention?


Of interest is another s... (Below threshold)

November 27, 2007 4:31 PM | Posted by Alone: | Reply

Of interest is another study called, "Actually, a picture is worth less than 45 words": fake narratives are better able to produce false memories than fake photos. Subjects even supplement the narrative with their own additional (incorrect) memories (like dates, locations, etc). True narratives also produced better memories than true photographs; taken together, stories beat photos for making memories. Take that, mainstream media. The authors conclude with a line by poet Muriel Rukeyser, which is also the essence of the Stephen Wolfram's "A New Kind of Science," and my first girlfriend's favorite line: The universe is made of stories, not atoms.

At least, I think it was her.

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I love your take on NPR! W... (Below threshold)

November 27, 2007 7:05 PM | Posted by Steve: | Reply

I love your take on NPR! What I find so sad about NPR listens is that they feel so smug, so confirmed in their educated minds.

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How come you don't offer tr... (Below threshold)

November 27, 2007 7:11 PM | Posted by Steve: | Reply

How come you don't offer trackbacks?

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Jean Baudrillard would have... (Below threshold)

November 27, 2007 8:35 PM | Posted by ch: | Reply

Jean Baudrillard would have called this the "precession of simulacra."

Baudrillard suffers from the problem common to many (most?) French philosophers and litcrits: he takes what is kernel of a truly interesting idea to absurd extremes.

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When my Grandmother's siste... (Below threshold)

November 27, 2007 10:35 PM | Posted by Stephany: | Reply

When my Grandmother's sister was evacuated from Vietnam she covered her ears. The noise from the crowd, and the helicopters was deafening.

She was deaf.

I don't have a photograph of that.

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It's amazing how seemingly ... (Below threshold)

November 28, 2007 2:04 AM | Posted by Shalmanese: | Reply

It's amazing how seemingly deaf people go when you tell them something requires real effort. Finding truth is hard but it is possible. "Aren't there a set of guidelines? Some best practices I can blindly follow?" No, not really, what's needed is context and nuance and all that other boring, hard stuff.

But people don't want to be told finding truth is a skill that takes effort, they want to imagine that they're born with it. That they were genetically gifted with some truth detectoring nose and, more importantly, that nobody else was, so that they're elevated to a privileged position.

That finding truth is just a skill like calculus or football scares normal people the same way that discovering how vital small talk is in the real world scares nerds. While they were off in their corner worrying about the things they thought were important, other people had quietly been refining skills they weren't even AWARE of. Far better to hide among your peers and devalue any skill you don't collectively possess.

Probably the most pernicious instantiation of this has been the rise of postmodernism in the social sciences. Faced with the seemingly insurmountable challenges of discovering truth, they not only declared that it was not possible, but that it wasn't even valid. "All viewpoints are equally privledged and if you claim otherwise, then you're engaging in HEGEMONIC DISCOURSE".

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you make some good points, ... (Below threshold)

November 28, 2007 3:31 AM | Posted by kaioti: | Reply

you make some good points, but you're overly harsh on NPR.

NPR often covers topics covered by the MSM, and gives a different perspective. any one who relies on ANY ONE news provider is going to get a slanted view. there is no such thing as "unbiased."

i value NPR's commentary in part because it makes me aware of many topics in a relatively short period of time. some i follow, some i don't. i am only anything of an "expert" on my own experience.

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I used to listen to NPR, ba... (Below threshold)

November 28, 2007 6:34 AM | Posted by rbh: | Reply

I used to listen to NPR, back when I was just a poser, but now I, um, read blogs...

I've had several bosses who continue to say, "Perception is reality." How modern. As you point out, our senses cannot be trusted. Whatever happened to the notion that reality is apprehended through the exercise of reason?

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In the end it's a question ... (Below threshold)

November 28, 2007 4:53 PM | Posted by DrSteve: | Reply

In the end it's a question of ethics. One could could the relativistic route - we have nothing like full access to objective reality. Intellectually that might be right, but what does one do with it? Does one go the psychopathic route and use this as a 'paramoralism' - a psuedo-ethical statement designed to undermine the ethical thinking of another? E.g. "Even 'real' photos are selections, and 'original sources' are partial - so trying to be objective/fair is actually being dishonest. (Hey, I'm just being honest!)"

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This is why we homeschool!<... (Below threshold)

November 28, 2007 5:50 PM | Posted by Common Reader: | Reply

This is why we homeschool!

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That quote was obviously no... (Below threshold)

December 1, 2007 4:00 PM | Posted by Garrett: | Reply

That quote was obviously not James Joyce, as there were no swear words, no mangled Greek, and reasonable punctuation.

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Ah. I was wondering... (Below threshold)

December 2, 2007 1:13 AM | Posted by Amberite: | Reply

Ah. I was wondering why all of a sudden I can only view this blog with Tor enabled. They're fast, they are.

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I would like to point out t... (Below threshold)

January 20, 2008 10:04 PM | Posted by Dementis: | Reply

I would like to point out the "fact" that it really doesn't matter what is "real" or not. Since every single being base their own personal "truth" (in their own unique way) on what they percieve, whitch includes photos, "real" or fake.

There is no universal truth.
Nor any need to pursue "truth", since we form our own, regardless of "facts". However, while we also percieve "reality" in our own way, there would be chaos if we didn't stamp something with the mark of truth and discarding the rest.

But it doesn't matter really, because you whom are reading this doesn't exist. And if you did, prove it(perhaps with facts?).

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so good .Thanks for the inf... (Below threshold)

October 9, 2010 5:13 AM | Posted by iPhone Cases: | Reply

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In retrospect, I'm really s... (Below threshold)

December 6, 2010 8:38 AM | Posted by Z. Constantine: | Reply

In retrospect, I'm really surprised that this is your only mention of Loftus... think of the possibilities in the reflexive narcissism of selective memory!

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That was funny about how "i... (Below threshold)

November 15, 2012 7:58 PM | Posted by Mister Me: | Reply

That was funny about how "insecurely intelligent people... inevitably answer using the same language and words NPR used."

But I think Rush Limbaugh said it first.

Then Sean Hannity. Then Bill O'Reilly.

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The reason NPR warned its r... (Below threshold)

May 30, 2014 4:11 AM | Posted by sourcasm: | Reply

The reason NPR warned its readers of media manipulating the hive mind is because that implied that NPR itself will not do it, now that their audience knows about it. Just because you see it doesn't mean it's gone.

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